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Pope vs. Pope

Nobody claimed it was an original idea.

The pope was the pope, after all — the man who survived Nazis and fought communism, who suffered gunshot wounds and Parkinson's, whose funeral captivated millions. His life screamed "biopic" in several languages.

So two hours after John Paul II's death, Lorenzo Minoli, a producer of 2000's "Jesus" miniseries, looked out his window overlooking the Vatican, phoned his partner Judd Parkin, and said, "Let's do it."

Meanwhile, the Italian production house Lux Vide, which had worked with Minoli and Parkin on "Jesus," was nursing an idea for its own pope film.

Eight months later, TV is set to unroll two dramatizations of the pope's life, appearing within days of each other on competing networks. Minoli and Parkin's "Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II," airs Thursday on ABC/Ch. 4. The Lux Vide version, "Pope John Paul II," starts Sunday on CBS/Ch. 2 and continues the following Wednesday.

The airings will end this round of behind-the-scenes jostling, as each production team worked to differentiate its film. CBS, for starters, can boast the famous cast — when Ian Holm dropped out as the pope, Jon Voight stepped in — and a screening last week before Pope Benedict XVI.

ABC, meanwhile, can boast the earlier airdate; it was recently switched from Dec. 18 to Dec. 1, three days before the CBS premiere. On network TV, competition is its own sort of religion.

In truth, the dueling pope movies are strikingly different in scope, theme and feel. ABC's "Have No Fear" is a psychological take on the pontiff's life, focusing on the loss of his mother and his decision to remain pope despite his increasing frailty. This Karol Wojtyla is played by German-born Thomas Kretschmann from his teen years to heavily-made-up old age.

CBS's four-hour "Pope John Paul II" tells a broader story about late 20th-century history and geopolitics, seen through the eyes of an extra-intelligent pope. He is played by British actor Cary Elwes until the moment he takes over as pope, when he miraculously turns into Voight.

The CBS version has the access; producers say they were the first to film actors inside the Vatican and tout the footage of the Sistine Chapel. Such are the benefits, apparently, of working with Lux Vide, Italy's best-known — and best-placed — TV production company.

That connection is a tussling point due to the murky matter of Opus Dei — the conservative Catholic group closely tied to the Vatican. Lux's president, Ettore Bernabei, is a member, as is Bernabei's son Luca, a producer of the CBS film.

The makers of the ABC film haven't been shy about pointing out the potential implications. Their pope is shown making mistakes — can Opus Dei members offer that kind of balance? CBS wanted results as soon as possible; the network was recruiting scriptwriter John Kent Harrison a month after the pope's death. He finished writing some scenes at lunchtime during the eight-week shoot and was still doing post-production work on the eve of the papal screening.

The ABC producers likewise raced to work. Parkin and Michael Hirst delivered the script in a month. As for the CBS version, "We tried hard not to know what they were doing," Parkin said. "I suppose there was a sense of 'There's a race here, so we need to move quickly.' But we had to move quickly, anyhow. There's still a lingering interest in the man, so you don't want to do this film four years from now."

In Hollywood, network executives spent the weeks after the pope's death considering movie proposals — and then turned to the matter of scheduling.

Quinn Taylor, ABC's senior vice president for TV movies and miniseries. said he chose Minoli and Parkin's version in part because it would air for only one night. "It's a little more difficult for us to pre-empt Sunday night and put on a miniseries than it is for others," he said, referring to the ratings success of "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy."

It wasn't easy at CBS, either, said Kelly Kahl, the network's executive vice president for scheduling. "Not to pat ourselves on the back," Kahl said, "but our schedule has been doing so well that it's actually hard to find places to do part two of a miniseries."

CBS executives were unfazed, he said, when ABC announced its schedule change. "We saw they were putting theirs on a Thursday. That's not a high viewing night for them. We figured that we'd both be written about at the same time, anyway. You stack the two up side by side, we think we have the better product."