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When College Protests Were Considered Boffo TV

When College Protests Were Considered Boffo TV

It’s hard to imagine many screenwriters pitching a movie based on this spring’s student protest over Israel’s war in Gaza. But there was a time in Hollywood, long ago, when campus unrest actually was considered boffo, greenlight-worthy material. In fact, back in 1981, NBC spent a then- whopping $5 million to film a three-hour docudrama about one of the most famous campus protests of the whole Vietnam era.

We’re referring, of course, to Kent State, where in the spring of 1970, National Guardsmen inexplicably shot and killed four students during an otherwise peaceful anti-war demonstration, a shockingly senseless tragedy that seared the consciousness of much of the nation. So much so that 11 years later, it became a Sunday night TV movie.

Not surprisingly, administrators at the real Kent State University in Ohio would not allow NBC to film on campus, so director James Goldstone shot most of it at Gadsden State Junior College in Alabama (chosen for its remarkably similar architecture to Kent State). There aren’t too many familiar faces in the cast — ’80s star Keith Gordon (Back to School, The Legend of Billie Jean) plays a student activist. But eagle-eyed viewers will no doubt recognize a 27-year-old Ellen Barkin in a don’t-blink role as a coed delivering an impassioned quad speech on American imperialism (“How much longer are we going to let our government go on as murderers all over the world!”). The telefilm earned Goldstone a directing Emmy, and a year later, Barkin would become a much bigger star, on a much bigger screen, with her breakout role in Diner.

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This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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