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Ken Burns: Behind the Documentaries

August 06, 2000|DON HECKMAN

Ken Burns recalled a conversation in which it was suggested to him that "my whole work was an attempt to make people long gone come back alive." Losing his mother to breast cancer when he was 11, he told San Francisco's public television magazine "Focus," inspired not just his love of the past, but also his sense of direction and obsessive work style.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1953 to professional parents, Burns and his brother Ric moved frequently while growing up. His father, Robert, was an anthropologist and professor at the University of Delaware; his mother, Lyla, was a biologist; and they lived in places ranging from St. Veran, France, Newark, N.J., and Delaware to Ann Arbor, Mich., where his father taught at the University of Michigan. Burns graduated from Hampshire College, a small, liberal institution in Amherst, Mass., with no grades or attendance requirements, in 1975.

Their mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when Ken Burns was 3, and she died when he was 11 and his brother was 10. Burns says that his only awareness of his mother was while she was ill, and that--aware that her disease could be terminal--she urged a closeness upon the two young brothers. Ric was taught to read at 4 and eventually skipped the fourth grade to be in the same class with his older sibling.

Ric (he was born Eric) is a filmmaker, as well, most recently responsible for "New York: A Documentary Film," a 12-hour series on the history of New York. The younger Burns entered the documentary field after garnering a bachelor of arts and master's degree in English from Columbia and a master's in philosophy from Cambridge, when Ken Burns brought him to "The Civil War" as co-producer.

There have been reports that the brothers, essentially competitors in the documentary field who share a similar style of work, are not close. Ric Burns said in the New York Times in November 1999 that the two have "a benign indifference for each other." Ken Burns, however, prefers the adjective "cordial," and is quick to report that the brothers and their families will share a vacation home this summer.

How is Burns regarded by other documentary filmmakers? Few are willing to risk public criticism of the field's most visible figure. Liberal commentators have often sniped at his "conservatism" and "sentimentality." In a joint review of Ken Burns' "Not For Ourselves Alone" (a biography of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton) and Ric Burns' "New York City," Time magazine wrote, "Ken and Ric Burns have managed to sing America. If only they wouldn't sing it to sleep."

Burns lives in Walpole, N.H., with his companion, Joanna Groning. He has two daughters, Sarah, 17, and Lily, 13, and is divorced from their mother, Amy Stechler Burns, who also lives in Walpole.

His next subject will be Mark Twain for PBS' "American Biography" series. He has decade-long contracts with PBS and General Motors. A brief, mid-'90s flirtation with a dramatic film based on the life of Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, reportedly to be done with Merchant Ivory and Hollywood Pictures, apparently has been set aside.

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