The Great Los Angeles Earthquake

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The Great Los Angeles Earthquake
The Great Los Angeles Earthquake.jpg
Genre Drama
Written by William Bast
Paul Huson
Directed by Larry Elikann
Starring Joanna Kerns
Dan Lauria
Lindsay Frost
Joe Spano
Michael T. Weiss
Richard Masur
Ed Begley, Jr.
Theme music composer David Shire
Country of origin United States
Original language(s) English
Producer(s) Frank von Zerneck
Robert M. Sertner
Cinematography Dennis C. Lewiston
Editor(s) Stephen Adrianson
Gregory Prange
Running time 180 minutes
Production company(s) Von Zerneck Sertner Films
Distributor NBC
Original network NBC
Original release
  • November 11, 1990 (1990-11-11)

The Great Los Angeles Earthquake is a 1990 television film about a massive earthquake that strikes Los Angeles, California. The movie stars Joanna Kerns in the movie's lead role, seismologist Clare Winslow, who tries to warn city leaders of the possibility that a powerful earthquake may strike southern California.


The movie begins with a small tremor beginning in the hills outside of Los Angeles near a United States Geological Survey (USGS) research post which cuts to a scene of a teenage girl on a date with her boyfriend at the Earthquake Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood. The girl is later revealed to be Heather, daughter of Clare Winslow (Joanna Kerns), who is a seismologist with the U.S.G.S.

Clare and her staff, among whom is her assistant Jerry Soloway (Ed Begley, Jr.), have been studying a series of tremors that have been taking place near Los Angeles. Analyzing this information, she is able to conclude that there is a better-than-average chance that a massive earthquake will strike along the San Andreas Fault and cause severe damage to Los Angeles ... and the likelihood of said earthquake happening is imminent. She conducts an informative interview with Kevin Conrad (Richard Masur), a sensationalist television reporter who prematurely airs the interview, creating a political firestorm and causing tension between Clare and her husband Steve (Dan Lauria).

Steve happens to be working closely with high-powered and wealthy real estate developer Wendell Cates (Robert Ginty) who faces losing money and his socio-political reputation from public fear of the possibility of the earthquake. Warren threatens Clare and attempts to have her fired from her job. Nevertheless, Clare tries to alert the more skeptical city and state government officials including Chad Spaulding (Joe Spano) of the Office of Emergency Management, but fearing political fallout and possible panic, they decide to ignore her warnings.

As this unfolds, Clare's family dynamic is further explored through her strained relationship with teenage daughter Heather (Holly Fields), which is mirrored by the relationship of Clare's mother Anita Parker (Bonnie Bartlett) and Clare's sister Laurie (Lindsay Frost), who are estranged from one another due to Anita's open resentment of Laurie's romantic relationship with L.A.P.D. officer Matt (Alan Autry).

When tremors are detected along the smaller, lesser-known Newport-Inglewood fault, city officials call a news conference to alert citizens of the looming threat. For most residents, however, it will already be too late. Not long after preparations and evacuations begin, the long-feared earthquake strikes, causing massive damage and killing thousands - among the victims is Anita, who had been trapped in a high-rise condominium elevator with Laurie during the quake. During the time that they are trapped, they reconcile shortly before Laurie is rescued by other survivors, but Anita is less fortunate and dies when the elevator crashes to the bottom of the shaft. Another victim is Miguel, son of Clare's housekeeper Sonia, who is crushed and fatally injured during the collapse of his high school gymnasium during his graduation rehearsal. Steve Winslow is thought to be dead after being crushed by a wall at the airport, but he is revealed to have survived the quake at the end of the film.

More gratifying deaths include those of Wendell Cates, who is thrown to his death from his skyscraper window, and Chad Spaulding, who is electrocuted while attempting to escape from the U.S.G.S. safety bunker beneath City Hall. A more redeeming storyline is that of Kevin Conrad, who is transformed from a cutthroat reporter looking for a hot story into a more sensitive and humanitarian character deeply affected by the tragedy and devastation. The remainder of the movie centers on the political and social fallout following the earthquake, and Winslow's attempts to reunite with her family (from whom she had become separated).

Broadcast History[edit]

The movie was aired over a two-night period on NBC during November 1990. There had been some public interest in earthquakes following the Loma Prieta earthquake which rocked San Francisco in October 1989, and in addition seismologists at the time were predicting a massive earthquake to strike along the New Madrid Fault line, which runs along the Mississippi River, an event which ultimately did not occur. (A real earthquake would eventually strike Los Angeles just four years later.)

The original airing included a number of scenes and subplots that were removed from later airings; one of the excised storylines included an assassination attempt on South African trade minister David Motubu (Brock Peters), who is under the protection of security agent Roy Bryant (Clarence Gilyard, Jr.). The earthquake thwarts the assassin's initial attempt on Motubu's life, although Motubu's personal guard and Bryant's partner are both killed. Although Laurie's police officer boyfriend Matt (who is Bryant's good friend) tries to intervene in the destroyed streets of L.A., Roy falls victim to the assassin's gunfire, but only before Motubu kills the assassin himself.

The miniseries was re-aired on 22 March 1992,[1] sans the above-mentioned scenes that were cut from the film in order to have it run in a three-hour time slot on one night. The cuts nevertheless left the film running short, so scenes that were excised from the film's original airing were broadcast in this airing. In subsequent years the movie would periodically be re-run over the Lifetime movie channel; however, it was drastically cut in order to fit a two-hour time slot. This led to a lot of scenes and subplots being deleted, in addition to a lot of plot lines not being resolved.

All scenes were restored for the mini-series DVD release.

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