Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Historian As Star

Lately it has seemed as if every day brings news of another TV death. I've had recent postings on Lane Smith and Paul Winchell, and could have spoken as well about John Fiedler, the fine character actor in movies and TV. Fielder's long list of credits include ''Night of the Meek,'' a Christmas-themed episode of ''The Twilight Zone'' that I watch every holiday season.
Now, Shelby Foote is gone, too.
Foote was known mainly as a historian and the author of a popular account of the Civil War. But he rose to TV prominence as one of the voices in Ken Burns's ground-breaking ''Civil War'' documentary for PBS.
He was pretty cool -- in every sense of the term. About 15 years ago, I was in Hollywood for the TV critics' press tour, and Foote was there to talk about ''The Civil War.'' A friend and I were waiting in the hotel hallway for a third friend, who was finishing up a phone call in his room. Mature people that we are, my friend and I were just sitting on the floor, gabbing and half-heartedly pitching coins against the wall. Then Foote came down the hall. We were embarrassed. He was not. He simply smiled as he went by and said, ''Carry on.''
On TV, Foote showed audiences that historians did not have to be dry relayers of ancient fact. He was in many respects an heir to Carl Sagan (''Cosmos'') and Leonard Bernstein (''Young People's Concerts''), who became known as TV personalities as much as for their academic and cultural accomplishments.
Foote even did Sagan and Bernstein one better, since they had hosted television programs, and he became a star not as a host but as part of a larger narrative.
Foote also reminded producers that a historical account became more compelling television if a strong personality could be found to move along the tale.
Burns, for one, searched for a comparable voice to drive his ''Baseball'' documentary -- and found it in former ballplayer Buck O'Neil.
Carol Berkin, a history professor at Baruch College, has been seen in many TV documentaries not only because she knows her stuff, but because she comes across vividly on camera.
As did Shelby Foote.


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