- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

NEW YORK

There’s something plush about “American Masters.”

The musicians, painters, writers, filmmakers and other visionaries profiled on this PBS series emerge in full measure, their stories told with satisfying resonance, each shedding light on a larger whole.

Such attributes might hardly be worth mentioning if the series didn’t stand in stark contrast to most other biography TV, which tends to be a thin gruel of still photos, rote interviews and heavy-handed narration.

Those shows often practice a reckless egalitarianism: Martin Luther King, Scott Peterson and Britney Spears could be equal in their eyes, with each subject given equal time and attention.

Meanwhile, “American Masters” is poised to redeclare its distinctive approach as its 20th anniversary season begins Wednesday evening at 9 on Maryland Public Television Channel 22. (WETA-Channel 26 will broadcast the program an hour later at 10 p.m.)

Not one but two masters are profiled in “John Ford/John Wayne: The Filmmaker and the Legend,” an eye-opening account of a professional marriage: a timeless Western icon and the director who defined Mr. Wayne’s image in the 14 films they made together.

Additional new profiles in coming weeks include Nat King Cole, Woody Guthrie, Marilyn Monroe, Walter Cronkite, Frank Gehry, Andy Warhol and Annie Leibovitz.

Past portraits getting encores include last season’s epic “Bob Dylan: No Direction Home” (which won the latest of the series’ seven Peabody Awards) and a pair of magnificent films profiling Judy Garland and Leonard Bernstein.

Those were produced by Susan Lacy, an American Master in her own right who, as executive producer, started the series in 1986.

While Miss Lacy keeps her hand in as a documentary auteur, most “American Masters” profiles are made by others under her steady supervision. Her job entails a dizzying litany of duties, not the least of which is wooing subjects. (It took her a decade to get Mr. Dylan on board.)

“The trick,” Miss Lacy says, “is to gain the subject’s complete cooperation, without giving up any editorial control, then to get interviews with the people who matter.”

At the other end of the process, she oversees the final cut.

One of her more demanding chores would never occur to most viewers: negotiating the use of copyrighted music or video excerpts without busting her budget.

The Ford-Wayne portrait boasts extended scenes from a half-dozen of their classic collaborations. It’s a vital ingredient, Miss Lacy notes, and the sort of thing that sets “American Masters” apart.

“If we can’t get the raw materials we need to really do it right, and not rely on still photographs and newspaper headlines, which anybody can do, I’d rather not make the film,” she says, dismissively citing another series’ Bob Dylan profile that had none of his costly-to-license songs.

“It’s a real effort to harness the history of our culture,” declares Miss Lacy, who sees the 142-and-counting “American Masters” films as more than a TV series. It’s also a growing library, a work in progress for future generations.

In her office at Thirteen/WNET in Manhattan, she’s seated at a desk stacked high but fastidiously with folders representing various projects. As usual, she is juggling three dozen or more, at various stages of development — some as far along as post-production, others freshly plucked from her wish list and just begun.

So how are the subjects chosen?

“It’s about the work,” Miss Lacy replies, then identifies a unifying thread: nationality, renown, longevity.

“You don’t get in ‘American Masters’ because you’re famous. It’s not ‘American Celebrities.’ Or just because you’re an interesting person.” On the other hand: “Generally, the more important the artist, the more interesting the story.

“The stories of artists are usually about trying to achieve something, usually against great odds, usually ahead of their times,” she says. “And usually, they come out the other side in some kind of transcendence.

“Those make good stories. They tell us about ourselves: how the artist has shaped us, and shaped how we view the world.”

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