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The Story Behind A&E's 'Biography'

Television: Now in the middle of its 11th season, the series relies on extensive research and diversity for its success.

June 19, 1998|MICHELE WILLENS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Producer Peter Jones reaches for something in his West Los Angeles office and picks it up with tender care. Small wonder, for it turns out to be an extremely personal family scrapbook of the Nelson family ("Here's Ozzie, here's Harriet . . . ").

When Jones first approached David Nelson, the remaining member of the core family, and his Uncle Don, they were extremely reluctant to cooperate in a probing look at his family, whose TV series came close to being "The Truman Show" of the 1950s.

His eventual opening of the books, so to speak, is testament not only to Jones' personal persuasion but also to the success of the program for which he produces: "Biography," on A&E.

The Nelson biography, coming Sunday, arrives in the middle of the series' 11th year. It started in 1987 as a one-night-a-week exploration of a famous person's life and has grown so popular that it now is shown daily.

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To come up with 130 new shows a year, A&E has an in-house staff of about 15 producers and also uses a select group of about 10 independent companies like Peter Jones Productions and units at ABC News, CBS News and ITN in London.

Once a subject--assuming he or she is still living--is selected for a "Biography," A&E protocol is to inform the subject and hope, if not for total involvement, at least for nonresistance.

"Sometimes only the subject can tell certain stories," says Michael Cascio, senior vice president of programming at A&E. "But often it can get in the way. After all, the show's not called 'Autobiography.' "

Wayne Newton and Jonathan Winters were integral parts of their biographies, but Sidney Poitier, for one, chose to stay removed.

"By Poitier's absence, he was a greater presence," producer Jones maintains. "Sometimes the subject wants to give his own spin and that changes everything."

When the Kennedy Library agreed to cooperate on one about Joseph Kennedy, little was said about his relationship with Gloria Swanson or about daughter Rosemary's lobotomy. But sometimes the approach is dictated by the subject matter itself.

Producer Arthur Drooker says that even if he'd discovered that Lawrence Welk was a "cross-dressing Nazi," it probably wouldn't have come out on "Biography." "That was a little piece of Americana," he says, "and you're really doing one like that for the people who love Lawrence Welk."

What has earned the series its loyal following and three Emmys are the diverse on-air interviews with those who do participate as well as the materials producers manage to collect. Producer-researchers scour everything about the person's life.

Producer John Griffin, currently finishing a program on Montgomery Clift, was encountered in his office recently displaying rare mementos such as a Playbill of a show the actor attended as a youth--including his own handwritten notes. He also discovered a taped phone conversation between Clift's mother and brother discussing the actor's homosexuality.

"I hit gold with one of Monty's nephews," says Griffin, who made a trip to Philadelphia to meet the young man. "He's the repository of most of Monty's stuff, and while his father had wanted to control it more, the nephew wanted to see a definitive portrait."

The challenge when it comes to deceased subjects is to find interesting historians as well as good photographs, not to mention an objective, perhaps unpredictable perspective.

Among the people Griffin interviewed for the piece is Ian McKellen; the gay British actor talked about actors coming out these days versus the more closeted times in which Clift lived.

Producer Drooker, who has "biographed" Theodore Roosevelt and Gen. George Custer as well as Welk, says Custer was his favorite.

"Frankly, I take the historical figures more seriously because their lives are so open to interpretation," Drooker says. "Custer is not your most PC figure and it would have been very easy to bash him. But the more I read, the more I realized he was one of the true heroes of the Civil War. People were truly amazed to learn that this was not a guy who just set out to kill a lot of Indians one day."

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As for finding telegenic historians, Drooker says he reads all the books and "looks for an accessible writing style. That usually translates to their speaking style. And a lot of historians have a bit of the ham in them."

Producers like Drooker and Jones are usually given between $60,000 and $100,000 an hour, which is small potatoes compared to the $500,000 to $600,000 that PBS spends on "American Masters," still considered the Rolls-Royce of TV biographical programs. But Jones says more money doesn't necessarily mean better journalism and that if he had additional funding, most of it would end up going for more clips or music. It's not something for which he pines, explaining that with bigger budgets come more scrutiny and interference.

"First of all, when we really need extra money, as I did with the Nelsons and with Judy Garland, I usually get it," he says. "But I'd rather have the freedom from the network control in doing 12 a year than an 'American Masters' producer would have in just doing a few."

The oft-asked question, of course, is, will they ever run out?

"As long as there are people, there will be 'Biography,' " says A&E executive Cascio. "The idea of great events being personalized through individual stories is a true 20th century phenomenon."

* "Biography" is shown weekdays and Saturdays at 5 and 9 p.m., and on Sundays at 8 a.m. The show about the Nelsons, "Ozzie and Harriet: The Adventures of America's Favorite Family," will be shown Sunday at 5, 7, 9 and 11 p.m. on A&E.

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