He's the reality producer behind Survivor, The Voice and The Apprentice. She's best known for playing Monica, the benevolent (and beloved) do-gooder on CBS' Touched By an Angel,for nine seasons.
Now the husband-and-wife team of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey are collaborating as producers on a passion project. The Bible, a 10-hour, $22 million miniseries, premieres Sunday on History (8 ET/PT) and wraps up its five-week run on Easter.
They began planning it in 2009 and lined up their own financing, so sure that The Bible will be an enduring hit in the way that Charlton Heston's The Ten Commandments has been a holiday fixture.
With more than 300,000 churches in America, "this is the most-read book in the history of the country," Burnett says.
Shot on location in Morocco over five months early last year, the series begins with Noah and his ark, quickly flashes back to the story of Genesis and Adam and Eve, and includes iconic scenes using special effects, such as Moses parting the Red Sea, the burning bush and Jesus walking on water.
"We wanted to create something that was visually fresh and exciting and compelling, that your grandmother would enjoy but that your kids would enjoy," says Downey, who plays Mary, Jesus' mother, in several episodes. (The couple has three teenage children.) "We wanted it to be the Bible for this generation, that it didn't have that donkeys-and-sandals feel of Bible movies from our own childhood."
But it was impossible to tell the entire story in that little time, so the miniseries is more of a greatest-hits collection than an encyclopedic retelling. "The biggest challenge is what you're not telling, distilling what those iconic stories are," says Nancy Dubuc, president of entertainment and media at History parent A&E Networks. "It's not feasible to tell the entire narrative of the Bible."
Among stories left out: "We had written and prepped to shoot (the story of) Joseph and ran out of time and money," Burnett says.
They screened the miniseries for mega-church pastors such as Joel Osteen and Rick Warren and enlisted their help in spreading the word about the project, which they hope will be used as a visual aid in religious schools and churches.
"The faithful will find it, but there's an opportunity here for this to be exposed to people who maybe necessarily wouldn't read the Bible, maybe haven't been to church, and will turn the TV on and realize how amazing this story is," Downey says.
If so, there are plenty of companion projects: The series will be released on DVD and Blu-ray April 2; a novelization of the script, A Story of God and All of Us, is out this week in adult and young-adult editions; a nearly three-hour theatrical film version is planned for later this year; Burnett is fielding offers from international broadcasters to air it with subtitles; and a soundtrack from composer Hans Zimmer is also due.
"We know that this will long outlive us," Downey says. "We will be long gone and this will still be playing. We made it to glorify God."