I was a little kid growing up in a home filled with country music when Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” became a radio hit in 1971. I already loved the story of the original coat thanks to Sunday school, and since I was a small-town girl with a loving mama, too, I fell hard for that song. I still get goosebumps when I hear it.
This month, NBC brings the tender tune of a family’s love and resilience in the face of tragedy — personified by a little patchwork jacket — to television as part of a deal with the country music legend and her production partner Sam Haskell to produce films based on Parton’s most enduring hits. (Jolene begins filming in early 2016.) The film — which stars Ricky Schroder and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles as Parton’s parents Robert Lee and Avie Lee, and sparkling 8-year-old Alyvia Alyn Lind as a young Dolly — dramatizes Parton’s true-life tale of growing up in a dirt-poor but unfailingly loving and creative home. Parton calls the movie her gift to viewers in the most faith- and family-centric time of the year.
“I’ve had so many people tell me that [the song] has touched them even though it might not have been about a coat or a piece of clothing, but a handicap or being overweight or just being different,” Parton says. “It just touches me that my work has been able to touch people through the years like that.”
Because of that, Parton and Haskell worked closely with screenwriter Pamela K. Long to make sure the film echoed the song’s timeless message. “They teach this little ‘Coat of Many Colors’ in so many schools now and use it as an anti-bullying song, that we should celebrate the differences in each other. So when we started putting this show together, Sam and myself wanted to make sure that it really was about celebrating those differences. And I really wanted to pay tribute to my mom and dad and to show who the family was that I came from.”
And what a family it is — one Parton credits with her own ability to bloom where she’s planted. “Mom had a house full of kids and a love for my daddy that wouldn’t quit,” she says. “They married when Mama was 15 and Daddy was 17. My dad was such a hardworking person, and he never had the chance to go to school. So they had nothing to work with except love and faith and one another — and Mama had enough faith to move a mountain. I think I got my spirituality and my positive attitude and my faith from my mother. And I’ve got my dad’s hard work ethic.”
Understandably, Parton was careful about choosing the people who would step into their shoes. Of Nettles, she trills, “She actually did her own little audition tape and sent it in to us, and we just absolutely flipped out! I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s Mama!’ She’s spectacular! And Ricky, he looks like my brothers and my daddy’s people — his coloring, and just his body structure. He and his wife were very involved in the story. They had lost a child, too — something that we talk about in the movie — and I think that was very healing for them.”
The loss of baby Larry is part of the Parton story that even Dolly’s biggest fans might not know in its entirety and part of a season of tragedy that united the family and launched little Dolly on the life path that would make her a star.
“When I lost my little brother, that was supposed to be my baby,” Parton recalls. “Mama always used to give us all a baby, just to have extra help. She’d say, ‘Well, this is going to be your baby’ — which meant you’re going to be the one that has to rock it and get up and help diaper it, and do this and that. The baby that we lost was going to be my baby, so we play that up and that’s a real touching part in the movie for little Dolly. And the fact that there was a drought and we lost our tobacco crop — it talks about how the coat represents the different pieces and colors of our lives. I’m very proud of it, and I really hope people are going to be touched and moved by it. I think they will be.”
As for casting little Lind to play herself during such a pivotal time, Dolly says it was a match made in heaven.
“We auditioned hundreds of kids and I said to Sam, ‘God’s going to send her. We’re going to get the right one!’” Parton exclaims. “Then the day I saw her, I said, ‘That’s her! I see her! I see me! She’ll make me look good!’ I never was that cute, but that little thing can sing, she can act. The second our eyes met, it was like I knew that we were right!”
And though Parton herself introduces Coat of Many Colors and serves as its narrator, someone near and dear to her heart represents the Parton family in the film.
“My sister, Stella’s in it!” Parton trills. “My sister Stella, who is two-and-a-half years younger than me, plays Ms. Corla Bass, the lady that brings the scraps and the rags — the church lady that owns the merchandise store in town. I do an introduction at the beginning as myself — as grown-up Dolly now — and then I do voiceovers, kind of carrying the story along. But my sister Stella is actually in the movie, in addition to having a little Stella, too! She was on the set every day and worked with the kids and helped with the dialogue and with how we were and told them stories of us.
“They all loved her and they loved it. She did a really good job!”
Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors premieres Thursday, Dec. 10 at 9/8CT on NBC.