Kevin Sullivan had just completed writing and directing two new movies for The Disney Channel and CBC in the spring of 1989. His thoughts were far away from the idyllic, small-town world of Edwardian Prince Edward Island, which he had brought to the screen in two sumptuously filmed versions of Anne of Green Gables. A good friend had challenged him, saying, “No one has ever made a long-running television hit out of a classic novel. You have all the style and experience, why not serialize “Anne?” Sullivan wasn’t interested.
Our goal was always to entertain, but along the way each of us got caught up in using this vehicle as an opportunity to tell the audience something about themselves. – Kevin Sullivan
He felt he was done with bringing Canadian author L.M. Montgomery’s works to the screen. Even when executives from CBC and Disney pitched him on the same notion, he responded by saying “no” once again. He felt there just wasn’t enough story material left in the Anne books to bother and he was uncertain about developing a long-run series on the shoulders of a single character.
The Role of Characters
Thespian actress Colleen Dewhurst had fallen in love with her role as Marilla Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables though. She too had asked Sullivan to consider a series. Dewhurst sparked the ignition. Always mindful of great actors in great roles, it occurred to Sullivan that if he were able to assemble a really marvelous ensemble of his favourite performers for a long-running television vehicle, it could provide him the opportunity to write wonderful material specifically for them.
Sullivan rambled through some of L.M. Montgomery’s little known books and short stories. In his mind he began to draw together a parade of characters that might have inhabited the world that “Anne Shirley” had lived in. He saw an occasion to have many of his favourite supporting characters and actors from the “Anne” mini-series reprise their original roles or be given the opportunity to shine in even meatier ones.
Finding The Right Cast
He began calling on actors like Patricia Hamilton, Jackie Burroughs, Mag Ruffman, Cedric Smith, Rosemary Dunsmore and Marilyn Lightstone who had all appeared in “Green Gables” and were keen to return to Sullivan’s Edwardian fantasy. Sullivan went back to the broadcasters and re-pitched Road to Avonlea as an expanded series based on his ideal ensemble cast.
Sullivan then employed the characters from two later Montgomery books about her childhood memories of P.E.I. The Story Girl and The Golden Road then became the framework for a prime-time hour-long family drama in which he re-established L.M. Montgomery’s “King Family” in the town of Avonlea.
Thematically and visually Road to Avonlea began to re-create L.M. Montgomery’s dream world of PEI on paper. However, for Kevin Sullivan and his team of writers it was an opportunity to write for some of Canada’s most remarkable performers. Two volumes of short stories from Chronicles of Avonlea became the springboard to suggest story concepts, as well as additional characters and events that took place in the fictional town. Thematically and visually Road to Avonlea began to re-create L.M. Montgomery’s dream world of P.E.I. on paper. However, for Kevin Sullivan and his team of writers it was an opportunity to write for some of Canada’s most remarkable performers.
The Star Studded Cast
They embarked on an adventure that spanned 91 episodes in which the likes of Gus Pike, Blair Stanley, Nanny Louisa Banks, Simon Tremayne and Arthur Pettibone were conceived. The show became an actor’s “tour de force” and began attracting big stars such as Faye Dunaway, Diane Weist, Madeline Kahn, Ned Betty, Peter Coyote, Stockard Channing, Christopher Reeves and Christopher Lloyd (winning an Emmy for his performance) in a cavalcade of delicious guest roles penned by Sullivan and his creative team.
All of this talent spawned a revival of interest in the works of L.M. Montgomery, mass tourism to picturesque P.E. Island, over 50 continental television awards, including 3 Emmys and 4 Cable Ace Awards, including Best Television Series; and drew millions of loyal viewers from Iran to Iceland who surrendered to the abundant charm of Avonlea’s lush settings and genuine characters.
“Our goal was always to entertain, but along the way each of us got caught up in using this vehicle as an opportunity to tell the audience something about themselves,” says Sullivan. “Why family, community and traditions are important to every culture; and most particularly how the foibles of the human condition shape and change all of us… Rich or poor, cruel or kind; all our lives are intertwined because of our humanity.”