'The Day After:' 20 Years Later In 1983, millions of Americans gathered to watch a made-for-TV movie depicting life after a nuclear attack on a small town in Kansas. The Day After aired at the height of the Cold War. Many see it as a great -- if somewhat campy -- achievement in nuclear-freeze paranoia. The director and others reflect on the movie's legacy. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

'The Day After:' 20 Years Later

Country Braced for Aftermath of Post-Apocalyptic TV Movie

'The Day After:' 20 Years Later

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1514779/1515001" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Video cover from the 1983 movie, The Day After ABC hide caption

toggle caption

Twenty years ago today, 100 million Americans gathered in front of their televisions to witness the end of the world. It wasn't real, of course. The event, The Day After, starring Jason Robards and John Lithgow, was a made-for-TV movie that depicted a nuclear attack on a small town in Kansas. With the support of the town, the production's staff gave Lawrence, Ks., an apocalyptic makeover. Locals were recruited to play victims, windows were smashed, cars turned over and ash was poured over everything to give the impression of a nuclear wasteland.

A year before, in 1982, President Ronald Regan had called the Soviet Union the "Evil Empire," and American fifth-grader Samantha Smith asked the Soviet prime minister why he wanted to destroy the world. That spring, 750,000 people marched in support of a nuclear freeze and disarmament. In this context, screenwriters could easily envision the events leading to global annihilation.

NPR's Neda Ulaby grew up in Lawrence and remembers the filming. For All Things Considered, she recalls the movie's impact on the town, and the country.