Ronda Rich, left, and Lauren Holly pose in the bookstore used in a scene from the UP Network TV movie "The Town That Came A-Courtin'." Holly portrays Abby Houston, Rich's alter ego in her book of the same title on which the movie is based. (Photo courtesy Ronda Rich)
GAINESVILLE — Even the warm feeling of knowing that your novel has been transformed into a movie can’t completely protect you from the likes of an arctic vortex.
Ronda Rich, the syndicated “Dixie Diva” columnist and author who will see one of her books come to life on the television screen Sunday night, was still thawing out a bit when she answered the phone on Thursday. She’d rushed back from Atlanta for the interview, worried that traffic snarls would make her late, and found her water heater in her unheated garage had finally unfrozen. Hot water at her home had been another victim of the frigid blast that had dropped the low to zero Tuesday night in her area of north Georgia.
“This is the kind of weather that puts farmers out of business,” she observed.
But like Abby Houston, her alter ego in her novel “The Town That Came A-Courtin’,” she counts herself fortunate. After more than six years, the fictionalized story of a town that won her heart is coming to life in a television movie that boasts a cast that includes Lauren Holly, Cameron Bancroft and comedy legend Valerie Harper of “Rhoda” and “The Mary Tyler Moore” fame. It will premiere at 7 p.m. Sunday on the UP Network. The channel is 188 on DISH and 338 on DirecTV.
Few people can capture an experience into words that captivate others. Fewer still find those words transformed into a film.
“I’m just so grateful to the good Lord and to all the people who came together to give me the strength,” Rich said. “Only one percent of books are made into movies, and it feels like winning the lottery. And I’ll tell you this — I’d rather have this opportunity than to win the lottery, because it means a lot to have something you worked for. Given the choice to have tens of millions of dollars or to have this, I’d choose this in a heartbeat.”
“This” was a chance occurrence some time back in a small Arkansas community named Blytheville. Rich was making a stop on a book-signing tour, and soon the entire town — seemingly, at least — was playing matchmaker for her and one of the community’s favorite residents, its mayor.
The overwhelming love she felt from the town was captured in the novel with some added dramatic flair — the kidnapping of writer Abby Houston, the lead character based on Rich, in the small town of Bliss, Miss., where the community conspires to connect Houston with its widowed mayor, Spencer Alexander.
“It’s just a wonderful story, all the way around,” Rich said. “The story was a gift to me. I found this big-hearted town that inspired this story. Though there’s a good bit of truth to it, there’s a lot of fiction to it. When I got ready to publish the book, I moved it to a town in Mississippi, a fictional town. I decided I’d ask the mayor if he’d let me tell the world it was Blytheville, Ark., because if he would we could bring a lot of attention to this town.
“He didn’t hesitate. He said, ‘If it’ll help Blytheville, I’m for it.’ And I think we have. This is a love letter from me to this town for giving me this story. It’s a love letter to the great state of Georgia, because the author is from there, so we feature Georgia in a good many things. It’s a love letter to people who are kind, compassionate and they care about their neighbor.”
Rich is among the few who’ve had an early look at the finished product. While there are plenty of cases where writers are unhappy with the way their words are transformed into pictures by third parties, don’t count Rich among them. She participated in the project “from beginning to end” and said she loved the way the film turned out.
“Tink (her husband, Emmy-winning TV producer John Tinker) and I watched it about a week and a half ago,” Rich said. “I’ll be honest. I had it about a week before I watched it, because you’re conflicted inside. You want to see it, but you think, ‘What if I’m disappointed?’ But there was no disappointment. We loved it. I loved it. I’d seen a lot of it filmed, but I still laughed out loud in places. The director, David Winning, did a fantastic job editing it. Tink said, and I believe it, that it can really become a classic one of these kinds of movies. It’s a big-hearted, warm-hearted, well-meaning, generous film.”
When she traveled to Vancouver last fall for the filming — she has a cameo early in the movie — she said she was warmly greeted. “The cast and the crew just lined up to hug me and to welcome and to thank me for writing the book, they loved the movie so much,” she said. “That’s what meant the most of everything. The people were just in love with the story and when you see actors and crew that excited, it means a lot to the author, I can tell you that.”
Harper, who play Bliss resident Charlotte, made headlines last year for her public battle against cancer. The actress, who was a long-time regular guest in American homes with her sitcom characters, hasn’t let her fight slow her down. After filming “Town,” she competed on last season’s “Dancing with the Stars.” Rich said they struck a friendship on the movie set.
“I actually went to see her on ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ She was there with (stand-up and TV comedian) Bill Engvall and I opened for him in November. She and Bill were both on … and I went to support them,” Rich recalled. “I happened to be there the night that Valerie was voted off.
“I went to the press room to see her and a man came over and introduced himself to me, one of Valerie’s friends. And he said, ‘Valerie keeps going from interview to interview saying, “Where’s Ronda Rich? I need to see Ronda Rich. Get Ronda Rich.”’ And I said, ‘Oh, how sweet.’ And he turned around and looked at me and said, ‘So, who are you?’”
Rich also gave a thumbs up to Holly, both for as a performer and as a person.
“She is absolutely lovely,” Rich said. “She really pops on the screen. When I saw the filming, she was even better on the screen than when I was standing watching it.
“Cameron Bancroft plays the mayor (Houston’s love interest, Spencer Alexander) and I think he is absolutely perfect. He has good comedic skill and timing. And I saw a couple of things in the movie that had not been there when I filmed, and he was hilarious. Did a great job.”
In fact, she said, she was pleased with the way all of her characters came to life, including one performer in particular — Barbara Wallace, who plays one of Bliss’s less blissful characters, Miss Eula.
“I thought the casting director did a remarkable job, just remarkable with the characters,” she said. “There’s a cantankerous old woman named Miss Eula and it was spot-on casting, without question.
“She did such a good job with her Southern accent that I said to someone, ‘Her accent is remarkable. She sounds like Jessica Tandy from “Driving Miss Daisy.”’ Someone heard me and started laughing and said, ‘She’s been playing that part on the stage.’”
The only concern she had was the on-set debate about how the lines would be spoken. The question whether the cast should use Southern accents.
“There was great discussion on whether the cast would have Southern accents or not, whether they would just play it straight,” Rich said. “And to the credit if the UP Network, particularly a woman named Barbara Fisher, they decided to go with a Southern accent, which I adore.
“That would have been hard for me if this movie had been made without the characters having an accent.”
Harper, she said, had never played a character with a Southern accent “so she went out and rented every Southern movie she could find that had accents in them and listened to all those accents and started practicing. On the set … one day, they were doing a group scene and she came over and said, ‘Ronda, we’re not sure. How do you say, “Prayer chain”?’”
Rich pronounced it for her and Harper went back to the actors and said, “This is how we say it.”
“I was so delighted they included the Southern accents in the movie,” Rich said. “That meant a lot to me.”
It also meant a lot to her that those who were guiding the movie listened to her and acted on her suggestions. “I was allowed full voice and consultation on the script,” she said. “They listened to whatever I had to say. I tried not to be overly intrusive, but if I made a small tweak and said this character wouldn’t do this or that wouldn’t happen, they listened and made the change.”
Asked whether Tinker offered her any advice or suggestions in getting the book to film, Rich said, “Absolutely not.” In fact, she said, he took great pains to distance himself from the process.
“He is so proud of me and this movie,” Rich said. “Whenever he sees a commercial for ‘a movie by best-selling author Ronda Rich,’ he tears up, he’s so proud.
“… He stepped back and said, ‘This is yours. I don’t want anybody to think I had anything to do with this.’ He has quietly stayed in the background and cheered me on and clapped for me and gave me standing ovations, but he has stayed out of the process completely. In fact … he would drive me to the meetings and sit in the car waiting for me. No one ever knew he was there and no one knew he was my husband because I went in under the name Ronda Rich.”
Rich said she was especially pleased that a deal was worked out with UP Network, which is “committed to produce uplifting entertainment that encourages and gives hope, so it’s a great synergy.”
She said it was important that the integrity of the story and the way it was told make the transition to film successfully. The one part of the process that was most important to her, she said, was “truly, the generosity of everyone who’s worked on it toward me. Their openness to allowing my say, their truly wanting my opinion, their bringing me into the circle and not closing me out. … I thank them very much for staying true to the integrity of this book.
“It had no sex, violence or cussing in it, and the movie has no sex, violence or cussing in it. And I’m very grateful for that.”
So, as Blytheville prepares for the premiere of its alter ego on the screen, Rich travels to promote the movie and last-minute preparations are made for a viewing party — “You can say plans are in the works,” she said — what are the chances of a sequel to the novel, the movie or both?
“That’s always possible,” Rich said. “If it pulls in big ratings numbers, it’s very possible. We’ll see what lies down the road. I’m just thoroughly enjoying this opportunity right now, and I’m beyond blessed.”
And, looking back, there’s nothing she would change, she said after a moment of silence in reply to the question of whether there were any she’d make if she had the chance. “You know,” she said, “even the fact that I’m having to sit and think about that would lead me to say no. No, there’s not.”
And for a writer to be able say that with her first movie-making experience, well, you’d have to think it would be truly bliss.