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Movies, Television and Broadway

Salem Witch Trials

CBS 2003

Making the Salem Witch Trials for CBS Television was quite an experience. It is an historic miniseries that is as accurate is we could make it. Everything from the costumes to the village to the story was carefully researched and documented before production began and I was proud to be a part of it.

The setting is 1692, in Salem, Massachusetts, where a strict religious community was struggling to exist in the harsh new world. Just trying to survive from day to day was a challenge but the community placed their faith in God and vowed to create a home in the worst of circumstances. The village is suddenly faced with a group of adolescent girls that seem to be possessed by the devil. The girls believe that they are being influenced by witches, the instruments of Satan, who live in this Puritan community. Frightened by the claims the parishioners, led by the Reverend Samuel Parris listened to the girls and began a ruthless witch hunt. During the short span of one year 156 innocent people were accused. Thirty people were convicted and twenty were hung including the character I play, Rebecca Nurse. This was a terrible time in the history of our country.

The cast was phenomenal. Kirstie Alley plays Ann Putnam, whose daughter Annie, is one of the "afflicted" girls. Ann's husband Thomas is played by Jay O. Sanders. The talented Henry Czerny and Rebecca De Mornay portrays the Reverend Samuel Parris and his wife, Elizabeth Parris. Sir Allen Bates is cast as Sir William Phips and my dear friend (and such a marvelous talent and mind) Sir Peter Ustinov plays William Stoughton. Gloria Reuben plays the Putnam's slave, Tituba Indian, who was among the first to be accused by the "afflicted" girls.

As Rebecca Nurse, a devoutly religious elder, I chose to wear no make up and only the undergarments of the time while we were filming. Rebecca was a 71 year old that had raised eight children and was highly respected among her fellow Puritans. After she was accused of being a witch she was indicted on June 2, and forced to undergo a physical examination to determine whether or not she carried the 'mark of the devil', which could be an anomaly of the skin. The examiners found what they believed to the 'mark' and she was tried on June 29, 1692. The first jury found her not guilty but one of the other accused women was overheard to say, "She is one of us." and the judge demanded a reconsideration of the verdict. On July 19th she was driven in a cart to Gallows Hill where she was hanged.

The Nurse family had been involved in several land disputes which could have caused ill-feeling among some of the residents of Salem. Nevertheless, most of her contemporaries sympathized with her. The dignity of her character which she showed throughout the trials undoubtedly helped turn public opinion against the trials which ended shortly after her death.

We had just a few days to prepare before we were in front of the cameras. Filming began outside Cornwall, Ontario at an historic park called Upper Canada Village. The cast and crew were staying in several hotels because Cornwall is a small city. Terry, Brit and I were at the local Best Western. Terry and I had a room with blue pineapple wallpaper and Brit's room was red. That's about all I recall of the hotel. Every day our driver would pick us up and deliver us to the set in the recreated village of Salem where Terry would play with the drivers and animal wranglers and I would work on my dialect before heading to the set. After filming we return to our hotel and, to the delight of some children staying on our floor, play ball with Terry in the hallway. I was in the middle of a speaking tour and left the set in Cornwall to go to Toronto where Gloria Reuben opened for me. She has an incredible voice and the audience was delighted by her talent.

When I finished the speaking engagements I returned to Canada to complete my part in the film. It was the part I was dreading most - a nude scene that was pivotal to the story. I had to completely emerge myself in the role of Rebecca Nurse, a senior woman bearing all for the jurors examination, which would ultimately prove her guilt. When I saw the rough cut I was pleased. I knew that I was able to find the same strength from the same source that Rebecca must have called on in her ordeal.

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