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Q & A

GILBERT M. GROSVENOR : Ringing the Right Bell


"The Sound and the Silence," premiering Sunday on TNT, dramatizes the lives of scientist Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone in 1876, and his wife Mabel Hubbard Bell, whose deafness inspired her husband's discoveries.

The four-hour Canadian/New Zealand production stars John Bach, Ian Bannen and Oscar-winner Brenda Fricker. Hearing-impaired actress Marlee Matlin introduces the drama.

Besides the phone, Bell invented the iron lung, designed a metal detector that led to sonar, built the first manned airplane to fly in the British Empire and created a hydroplane that set the world speed record in 1919. Bell also was instrumental in leading the then 6-year-old Helen Keller to her teacher, Anne Sullivan, and remained a friend to both women. Bell, who died in 1922 at age 75, was the second president of the National Geographic Society, now the world's largest nonprofit scientific and educational institution.

Times Staff Writer Susan King talked about "Sound and the Silence" aptly, over the phone, with Gilbert M. Grosvenor, president and chairman of the board of the National Geographic Society. Grosvenor, 62, is Bell's great-grandson and the fifth-generation member of his family to be president of the National Geographic Society.

What did you think of "The Sound the Silence"?

It's the first time I've seen anything on Alexander Graham Bell that made me think of family. I think the miniseries was almost haunting in the way it portrayed him as a person--as we in the family see him, not as the public sees him. I and other members of the family, particularly the ones who knew him personally, really felt this documentation was closer to what he was really like.

Have there been many films about Bell, other than the 1939 version with Don Ameche?

Well, there's been a lot of copy about him. There've been a bunch of books about him. There were a bunch of trash books written about him which had nothing to do with fact. It didn't seem to be the kind of portrayal that we as a family think of him as, until this came along.

It's interesting why the Don Ameche version has lived so long (laughs). Don Ameche swears it killed his career. The family always claimed everybody thinks Don Ameche was Bell.

I don't think the family are as emotional about the invention of the telephone as they are about the other things he did--the fact he truly sought new ways to reach and to teach young kids science. Boy, was he ahead of his time. Right now, we are suffering because we don't have enough kids, talented kids, who are going into science. They are not motivated by the excitement of science. He had the ability to bring out the curiosity in youngsters, particularly his own grandchildren. I think that is really what comes through in the film.

What type of stories did your father tell you about Bell?

My father would talk about the day Grampy--he always called him Grampy--picked up a matchstick, basically put a pin through it and a sightly beveled piece of wood on the top, almost like a Good Humor stick, and twisted it. It rose up into the air about 15 feet or so and simply came back down. There was your classic helicopter. That was just something that my father remembered all of his life. The helicopter didn't become a reality until he was 50 years old. That to us is Grampy Bell, coming up with toys for kids that illustrated principles of science.

Mabel Hubbard Bell seemed like an amazing woman.

She has always been overlooked because, again, she didn't invent the telephone. But I think if you ask any knowledgeable member of the family, you will find that she was equally important as he was beyond the telephone. She really was the one who pushed him to be a businessman, pushed him to stick with his convictions, to bring together young people. I think from a family view that is very gratifying for us. In the public eye she's always lived so much in the shadow, but within the family she is clearly a leader and an extraordinary woman. She was not a shrinking violet.

Are most of Bell's relatives interested in science and invention?

I happen to be one who enjoys working with hands. Some in our family have gone into teaching the deaf. My nephew, for instance, and his wife are teachers of the deaf. I don't have the faintest idea how much of that came from Bell. They are very content doing what they do. In essence, so was he. I think if he had never invented the telephone, if he had never become independently wealthy, I think he would have continued to teach (the deaf). He might have been just as happy as a person.

What do you think Bell would think of the world of communication today?

I don't think he would have been surprised at all. I think he would be as appalled as I am of the lack of message that is coming across the system. The medium has really devoured the message and the message has been lost in transmission. I think that would disturb him.

Part I of "The Sound and the Silence" airs Sunday at 5, 7 and 9 p.m.; Part II airs Monday at 5, 7 and 9 p.m. on TNT; both parts repeat Friday at 5 p.m.

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