Sam Neil Was Merlin The Wizard In A '90s Miniseries Smash Hit
In 1998, America went crazy over a new tale about a wizard. We are of course referring ... not to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which did come out in the US in 1998 but didn't really take off till the following year. We're instead talking about the made-for-TV movie Merlin, a miniseries on NBC starring Sam Neil.
Merlin was huge. An estimated 70 million people watched it live. A little while back, we were telling you about how Seinfeld's 1998 series finale got ratings like that, and how those are crazy numbers, the sort we'll never see post-20th century for scripted TV, but it makes sense that a lot of people saw that Seinfeld episode. It was the finale for an immensely popular show, a show still remembered today. Merlin, on the other hand, is completely forgotten today, which is the fate that awaited nearly all made-for-TV movies.
Why did so many people tune in for yet another King Arthur adaptation? For starters, it wasn't exactly the same old story everyone had already heard. It contained some new stuff, and like the title suggested, It focused on the wizard instead of the king. Arthur isn't even born until halfway through it.
Mostly, though, people were interested because of the cast. Including Sam Neil as Merlin—incidentally, the TV debut of Sam Neil's Jurassic Park had been the previous time NBC had got ratings like this. Isabella Rossellini plays his love interest. Lena Headey plays a queen, as she so often does, and Rutger Hauer plays a king. James Earl Jones plays a giant talking rock. Martin Short plays himself.
Of course the cast list has some overlap with the eventual Harry Potter movies, since Britain only has around six actors total. Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange) plays Morgan LeFay, while Miranda Richardson (Rita Skeeter) plays two parts. Maybe the one role played by a nobody was King Arthur, since his actor did almost nothing before and did almost nothing after.
You can hunt down the DVD of Merlin to watch it today. Apparently, a lot of people really like it. Just remember that this was made for TV in the '90s. While it avoids the cheap fake look of, say, a lot of today's digital streaming movies (even very expensive ones), don't go in expecting Lord of the Rings. This one looks like it was made at least a full generation earlier … even though The Fellowship of the Ring started filming just a year after, and with only three times the budget.
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Top image: NBC