On a stage in Los Angeles, Dolly Parton sat next to “Dolly Parton,” and she couldn’t have been happier.
“Didn’t we do good when we found this little one?” she asked. “Because we looked everywhere for this special little girl.”
Beside her, in a lavender sun dress, her silver sandals nowhere near touching the floor, Alyvia Alyn Lind beamed. The blond 8-year-old plays the lead in “Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors,” a movie based on Parton’s song about a patchwork coat her mother sewed during a difficult time in the family’s life in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
Shooting was just about to start last summer when NBC gathered producers and cast to introduce the movie, airing Thursday, to TV critics.
Jennifer Nettles plays Parton’s mother, Avie Lee, with Ricky Schroder as her father and Gerald McRaney as her minister grandfather.
Among thousands of child actors submitted for the role of precocious young Dolly, Lind caught the attention of producer Sam Haskell and writer-producer Pamela K. Long with her star power. For Parton, it was something else.
“When we connected, our eyes met,” she said, asking Lind, “We both felt it, didn’t we?” “Yeah,” Lind agreed, before Parton added, “But I was never that pretty.”
“Coat of Many Colors” is the first of two movies based on Parton songs that NBC will make. The other is “Jolene.”
But this one “is exciting to me because it’s very personal,” Parton said. “It’s a true story of my life, a certain period of my life.”
Parton narrates the movie and introduces it from Dollywood, her theme park in Tennessee, but doesn’t otherwise appear. The setting is Locust Ridge, Tenn., in 1955, when drought ravaged the Parton family’s tobacco fields. Dolly’s mother is expecting the family’s 10th child, and times are tough.
“My mama’s rock-solid faith was the heart of our family,” Parton narrates, “but we had no idea how that faith would be tested.”
After tragedy leaves the family badly shaken, Dolly’s mother makes the coat out of rags donated by the church, hoping to give her spunky daughter something to be proud of. Lessons on bullying and a nod to the biblical story of Joseph, who also had a coat of many colors, follow.
The story is a sweet one, and “Coat of Many Colors” does what it does very well. Nettles is strong as Mrs. Parton, but Lind steals the show as little Dolly, whether she’s turning up for her church solo in full “harlot” makeup or facing down the mean neighbor kids.
Many actresses wanted the part, Haskell said.
“I got calls from all sorts of agents saying, ‘My client’s in makeup, ready to go, ready for the part.’ And I went, ‘Well, she’s too old.’ ‘What? She’s only 35.’ I said, ‘No, she’s 8 years old.’”
He clarified that “it’s not the entire story. If we told Dolly’s entire story, it would take 12 hours. So we’re telling this 9-month period in 1955 when she was 8 years old so that we can show people where it all began, and we can show the heart and the soul of this family that she was so proud to be a part of and the struggles that this family had to get through to make this work.”
The song was already made into an illustrated children’s book, and Parton said she finds the anti-bullying message especially powerful today.
“I’ve had so many people tell me through the years that that song itself has had a healing effect on them, whether it was about their race, their nationality, or whether they’re overweight or whether they were crippled, whatever. When people make you feel less about yourself than you should, then that’s really hard.”
Long, who begged to write the movie, said, “It’s not often that you can tell a story that people are really going to want to watch, that’s not a Bible story, but it’s a story that has God in it. ... I just think that’s a divine assignment.”
Joking that “I’m older than show business,” Parton said, “I’ve been blessed and been proud to be around so long to get to do so many things. To get to do something like this that is so personal and special to me and to get the chance to work with all these great and wonderful people ... just seemed to be a precious thing.”
In the end, she said, “Hopefully, we’ve got something special to show for the folks for the holiday season.”
What "Coat of Many Colors" • Three stars out of four • When 8 p.m. Thursday • Where NBC • More info nbc.com/coat-of-many-colors