By David Colker / Los Angeles Times
Screenwriter Eric Bercovici knew he was not the first choice to adapt “Shogun,” the blockbuster 1975 novel by James Clavell about an English seaman marooned in 17th-century Japan. Bercovici, who worked on the Paramount lot, read the novel anyway.
“I knew right away how to adapt it,” he said in a 1981 Los Angeles Times interview. “But damned if I would tell them.”
Other writers fell by the wayside, and he was called to meet with Clavell, who had creative control over a proposed TV miniseries based on the book. Bercovici told him that major plot points and characters would have to go. Clavell was not receptive.
Until the next day when they met again. Clavell handed Bercovici a paperback copy of the novel with whole sections torn away. “He took out everything I suggested wouldn’t work,” Bercovici said. “I wrote the script from it.” The result was one of the highest-rated productions in TV history and prime-time Emmys for both men.
Bercovici, 80, died Feb. 9 at his home in Kaneohe. The cause was a heart attack, his son Luca said.
In addition to writing, Bercovici produced “Shogun,” which was the biggest hit of his career. It took nearly six months to shoot the 12-hour miniseries in Japan. Translation problems and cultural clashes abounded, and Bercovici did not always resolve them in the most diplomatic manner.
The residents of a neighborhood near where a key night sequence was being filmed lodged so many complaints with police that it appeared production there would have to shut down. Not even pleas from famed actor Toshiro Mifune, one of the stars of the miniseries, mollified the neighbors. Then Bercovici caught a break.
“Happily, President Jimmy Carter came to Tokyo at that time, and every single policeman in Japan went to protect him,” Bercovici said in a documentary, “The Making of ‘Shogun.’” “So if the neighbors were calling in complaints about our noise, there was no one to answer the phone.”
“Shogun,” starring Richard Chamberlain and shown over five nights in 1980, got mixed reviews. But the ratings were higher than for any other miniseries up to that time with the sole exception of “Roots.”
Bercovici said the success of the show belied naysayers who said audiences would not accept devices such as the use of untranslated Japanese in some sequences. “I think it has demonstrated that the television audience is much more discerning and sophisticated than they have been given credit for,” he said in a 1980 Times interview. “Rather than the usual TV fare we all know and love, the audience does want programs of a higher quality.
“And I say with no modesty whatsoever that I consider ‘Shogun’ high quality.”
Bercovici was born Feb. 27, 1933, in New York, the son of screenwriter Leonardo Bercovici, who worked on films such as “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947). He studied theater at Yale, but his early career was interrupted when his father was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
Eric Bercovici worked on several films in Europe, returning in 1965 to the U.S. where he wrote episodes of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “I Spy” and others. He wrote the 1968 film “Hell in the Pacific” (co-starring Mifune) and a handful of other films, but almost his entire career was in television.
He also wrote crime novels. The income from them was slight compared with his TV work, but he said that didn’t matter. “When you write scripts, the minute you write ‘fade out’ all these people — directors, producers, studios, sometimes other writers, networks — enter your life,” he said in the 1981 Times interview. “When you write a book, you are all these people.”