American Masters celebrates creativity for a quarter-century

'American Masters,' the PBS documentary strand focusing on individuals and movements that have influenced American culture, is nearing its 25th anniversary and has just received another Emmy nomination for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series. Realscreen spoke with series creator, Susan Lacy, about its longevity and its future.
August 9, 2010

‘American Masters,’ the PBS documentary series focusing on individuals and movements that have influenced American culture, is nearing its 25th anniversary. With nine Peabodys, an Oscar, two Grammys and 21 Emmy awards to its name, the series may be adding another trophy to the shelf later this month, as it is once again nominated for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series, an award it has taken home seven times before.

Series creator and executive producer, Susan Lacy, began the series because she saw there wasn’t enough opportunity for documentaries on cultural figures on television, and she wanted to give these docs a chance. ‘I had people say to me that if this was such a good idea it would have already happened,’ says Lacy of the opposition she originally faced to the concept. But she believed there was an audience for films about American creative genius and the series got off the ground in 1986.

‘If we create a spot for it on television then there’ll be an activity around it and you can go to funders and say, ‘Yes it’ll be on television,” says Lacy. ‘Up until then it was really difficult to raise money for these things.’

In the 25th season of the series, which starts next year, audiences can expect docs on cultural figures ranging from Jeff Bridges to Helen Keller. The Bridges doc, which studies the actor and his family’s dramatic legacy, will come out in January to coincide with the release of the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit starring Bridges. Also on the slate is a doc featuring singer-songwriters James Taylor and Carole King, which will focus on LA’s Troubadour and the songwriting scene that came out of that venue in the ’60s and ’70s; a doc on naturalist John Muir in time for Earth Day; the aforementioned Helen Keller doc; and what Lacy calls a ‘long-awaited’ piece on theatrical producer Joseph Papp.

The rest of the current season will include docs on bassist Israel ‘Cachao’ Lopez, pianist Glenn Gould, John Lennon’s years in New York, and a Martin Scorsese-directed doc on director Elia Kazan.

Despite the number of artist profiles featured in the series, Lacy emphasizes that ‘American Masters’ is not just about individuals; she’s also looking for docs on movements and events that have affected and changed American culture.

Currently, ‘American Masters’ is 50% acquisitions and 50% original, though, Lacy says, it used to slant more heavily toward original production. ‘There are so many more choices [now] than when I started this series in 1986,’ says Lacy of the subject matter available to her. The most important aspect of a doc commissioned or acquired by ‘American Masters,’ says Lacy, is that the film should be as individual as the artist depicted and the filmmaker that makes it.

There is no consistent style or voice to films within this series, and that’s the way Lacy sees the strand continuing. The one change Lacy sees coming by 2012 is the potential addition of more multi-part documentaries to the schedule. ‘I think the reason we’ve been around so long,’ says Lacy, ‘is nobody else is doing what we do the way we do it.’

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