"The Bible": How a hit TV miniseries was born

"The Bible" (2013) is a 10-hour dramatization of stories from the Old and New Testaments. When it debuted on the History Channel on March 3, 2013, it attracted 13.1 million viewers -- more than watched that week's edition of "American Idol."
History Channel

(CBS News) Tonight is the third installment of what's become a wildly-popular mini-series on the History Channel, "The Bible." It was produced by the husband-and-wife team of actress Roma Downey and reality show producer Mark Burnett. They know a thing or two about Hollywood miracles, but as they told Lee Cowan, their version of the Bible began in a very down-to-earth way:

Roma Downey said it started one morning over a cup of tea: "This is an Irish-English household, and everything is either figured out or solved over a cup of tea," she laughed.

The idea that Downey (star of the TV series "Touched By an Angel") was brewing that morning -- along with the tea -- was trying to persuade her husband, "Survivor" creator Mark Burnett, that perhaps the ultimate reality would be to bring the Bible to the small screen.

"I did go for a bike ride after that and think about it and prayed, and came back and realized, Roma was right," Burnett told Cowan. "And we hugged, and we have never, ever looked back, not once."

"But it was your idea?" Cowan asked Downey.

"I would say it was God's idea placed in my heart," she replied.

The result is a History Channel mini-series that's hardly mini. "The Bible" spans 66 books, from Genesis to Revelation, turning the page from Noah and his Ark to David fighting Goliath, and of course, the life and death of Jesus Christ. That saga begins later tonight.

"It's really an introduction to the Bible," Downey said. "And our hopes were that we would engage people in dialogue, which has certainly happened. Monday mornings after the show had aired, it was water cooler conversation, all across the country."

"The Bible" HAS begotten some pretty divine ratings. The first night it beat out everything else on TV. Not since Cecile B DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" has there been quite as much Biblical buzz in Hollywood.

Downey mentioned that the couple's teenage children made sure they got the special effects right.

"As we were leaving they said, 'Please, when it comes to the special effects, will you make sure that it's not lame?'" she laughed.

Roma Downey and Mark Burnnett, the husband-and-wife team behind the History Channel miniseries, "The Bible." CBS News

The Bible's $22 million face-lift is -- what Burnett argues -- what was long overdue. But was it a tough sell to TV executives? "No, I don't know, maybe for some people," Burnett said. "I just don't think that way. I just knew we were making it. We were going to make it no matter what. Would have made it. Whether it wasn't going to be on TV, would've made it."

"Because it was so personal for you?" Cowan asked.

"Because we knew we had to," he replied.

Both say it was a spiritual calling. It's not like they need the extra work, either. Not only is Mark Burnett still the creative force behind "Survivor" (now in its 26th season on CBS), but he's also producing "Celebrity Apprentice," "Shark Tank," and the wildly-popular "The Voice."

"We don't need to make more TV," Burnett said. "This is way more than that. . . . It's a movement. It's the Bible. It's something everybody should know. Even if you don't want to go to church, or believe, you should know these stories."

All of them age-old stories, like Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son."

It's fitting, perhaps, that "The Bible"'s co-producers own a little slice of heaven along the California coast, in Malibu - where, Downey said, "we come down and we're just able to get away from it all and sit right here on the edge of the continent and look out over the ocean."

They share their home with their three children and their three Irish Wolfhounds.

"They're my guardian angels, these guys," Downey said. "They don't know that they're big dogs. They're little dogs in big dog bodies," she laughed.

The couple grew up in religious households; Downey was raised in Ireland, a true Irish Catholic.

"I was taught by the Sisters of Mercy, or as we jokingly used to call them, the Sisters of No Mercy," she laughed.

They met during filming of her Emmy Award-winning "Touched By an Angel," where Downey played an angel. In "The Bible," Downey plays more than an angel -- she plays Mary.

She never intended to act in the mini-series, but by the time production started, they hadn't found anyone else that quite fit the bill.

Was she reluctant to do so? "I don't know if I was reluctant," she said. "I think that, you know, I approached it prayerfully, and I felt that maybe it was the right thing to do."