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The tabs would have loved him

We know Ben Franklin as a Founding Father and scientist. The History Channel gives us the self-promoting, flirting spinmeister too.

December 03, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

He was restless, brilliant and a self-promoter. He preached one set of values and often lived by another. He could be cold and aloof with his family and warm and endearing with strangers. And, most modern of all, he had a complex love life.

Forget the doughy, dowdy image of Ben Franklin. He was the most paradoxical, confounding and contemporary of the Founding Fathers.

That's the argument of a top-notch History Channel documentary that premieres Sunday, and it's a convincing one. Gather the kids -- this is an antidote to the musty stuff found in their history books.

Using the familiar tools of documentary -- dramatic re-creations, talking head interviews and illustrative art work -- "Ben Franklin" brings Franklin alive far beyond the well-worn images of the guy flying the kite and kibitzing on the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

The most interesting part may be the second half, which has Franklin conniving and consorting to get French help for the American Revolution, which was then sputtering for lack of money.

If "Ben" sometimes strains for effect -- likening the buzz of Franklin's arrival in Paris to that of the Beatles arriving in New York -- that's small beer compared with its achievements.

Franklin is a subject worthy of a first-rate television biography, so it's nice to see that the History Channel has delivered it, with guidance from Walter Isaacson, author of the much-acclaimed "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life," published last year.

Yes, Franklin wore those prissy clothes and had a terrible hairdo -- a bald pate surrounded by stringy dreadful-locks -- but with better tailoring and shearing, he would have been easily at home in our cable TV politics-as-combat world.

"He was the entire package," says narrator Ed Herrmann.

While the pedantic John Adams arose early and worked the French like an intellectual -- getting nowhere -- Franklin stayed up late and prowled the salon circuit, seducing the French upper class into helping the upstart colonists.

He was a spinmeister. "Franklin recognized that to be a success he had to be good at what he did but he also had to be seen as good at what he did," says Franklin scholar H.W. Brands, one of several Franklin-philes interviewed.

The story of Franklin's push-pull with his son, William, over whether to join the Revolution -- dad did, son did not -- is a gem within a gem.

The fun of "Ben" is that it finds a suitable middle ground between academia and its raffish cousin, journalism.

Is it historically significant that Franklin, as a young man, consorted with "low-women" and fathered an illegitimate child, or that, as an older (married) man, carried on innumerable flirtations with women of breeding and refinement?

No, probably not. But to us modern lowbrows, it's lip-smackingly interesting. If he were with us today, Franklin's liaisons -- complete with rumors, sightings and embarrassing pictures -- would be a natural for tabloid television.

"Entertainment Tonight," see what you missed.


'Ben Franklin'

Where: The History Channel

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

Nicolas Cage...Host

Executive producer, Raymond Bridgers. Director, Joshua Alper, Robert M. Wise. Writers, Joshua Alper and Raymond Bridgers.

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