HBO is developing Manhunt, a miniseries from David Simon and Tom Fontana about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the frantic 12-day hunt for his killer, John Wilkes Booth.
The project reunites the network with the creative forces behind two of its former critical hit series—Simon created The Wire and Fontana created Oz—as well as the two writers themselves. Simon and Fontana have not collaborated since Fontana turned Simon's book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets into the cop drama Homicide for NBC.
“The chance to put another project on the boards with [Fontana],” Simon told B&C, “there's something psychically cool about that.”
The would-be mini comes at a time when HBO has continued to find critical and viewership success with miniseries while struggling to mount new, enduring series hits. HBO posted a less-than-spectacular open for its most recent series debut, the heavily marketed vampire drama True Blood, which attracted 1.4 million viewers to its Sept. 7 premiere. It was an anemic debut compared to recent HBO drama premieres including Big Love (4.6 million), Rome (3.8 million) and the failed John From Cincinnati (3.4 million).
It also comes on the heels of another HBO miniseries in the American history genre, John Adams, which enjoyed critical and viewership success, and piqued Fontana's attention.
A history buff, Fontana's historical métier is the American Revolution and the Lincoln assassination. Fontana, in fact, grafted his Lincoln obsession onto one of his Homicide characters. Simon also possesses more than a passing interest in the Lincoln assassination.
“So when HBO did John Adams, I was like, 'What? You did John Adams without me? How is that possible?'” Fontana told B&C.
Executives at HBO Films brought Manhunt to Simon, and Simon says he knew whom to call. “I have hundreds of books about the Lincoln assassination,” Fontana says.
The mini is based on James L. Swanson's best-seller. HBO Films optioned the title from Walden Media, which scooped up Manhunt before it hit stores in 2006 with the intention of turning it into an action film.
Simon and Fontana are writing the miniseries script, and if production is greenlighted by HBO Films, will serve as executive producers along with Lawrence Bender and Kevin Brown and Walden Media. Representatives for HBO and Walden declined to comment.
Simon and Fontana will explore the assassination not from Lincoln's or Booth's point of view, but through the eyes of the little-known players, according to Fontana. “If you use Sept. 11 as the touchstone,” he explains, “I don't want to see the story of Sept. 11 told through Rudy Giuliani's eyes. I want to see it told through the fireman and the teacher and the guy working in the bakery on the corner and the wife sitting in Connecticut wondering how her husband is. That's the approach we're taking.”
When the project was being developed as an action picture, Harrison Ford was attached to star as the heroic cavalry officer who finally corners Booth near Port Royal, Va. That option ran out, and it's highly unlikely that he will be re-approached given the new direction of the project in Simon and Fontana's hands. Says Simon, “I don't do action.”
For Simon, Lincoln's murder took on new relevancy with the Bush administration's post-9/11 policies. “People have been fascinated by the Lincoln assassination since it happened,” he says. “It's a pivotal moment in American history. The stakes were extremely high for the nation as a whole. The characters are grandly dramatic. So there would be reasons enough to be interested even if it were all an anachronism. But I don't think it is an anachronism. If you look at everything from Guantanamo to the Patriot Act to the debate over military tribunals versus civil prosecution, there's a lot of analogous stuff.”