Family & Companions
Celebrated American documentarian of the 1980s and 90s who gradually amassed a considerable reputation and a devoted audience with a series of reassuringly traditional meditations on Americana. Burns' works are treasure troves of archival materials; he skillfully utilizes period music and footage, photographs, periodicals, and ordinary people's correspondence, the latter often movingly read by seasoned professional actors in a deliberate attempt to get away from a "Great Man" approach to history. Like most non-fiction filmmakers, Burns wears many hats on his projects, variously serving as a writer, cinematographer, editor, and music director in addition to producing and directing. He achieved his apotheosis with "The Civil War" (PBS, 1990), a phenomenally popular 11-hour documentary that won two Emmys and broke all previous ratings records for public TV. The series' companion coffee table book--priced at a hefty $50--sold more than 700,000 copies. The audio version, narrated by Burns, was also a major best-seller. In the final accounting, "The Civil War" became the first documentary to gross over $100 million. Not surprisingly, it has become perennial fundraising programming for public TV stations around the country.
Burns arrived upon the scene with the Oscar-nominated "Brooklyn Bridge" (1981), a nostalgic chronicle of the construction of the fabled edifice. The film was more widely seen when rebroadcast on PBS the following year. Though Burns has made other nonfiction films for theatrical release, notably an acclaimed and ambiguous portrait of Depression-era Louisiana governor "Huey Long" (1985), PBS would prove to be his true home. He cast a probing eye on such American subjects as "The Statue of Liberty" (PBS, 1985), "The Congress," painter "Thomas Hart Benton" (both PBS, 1989) and early radio with "Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio" (PBS, 1992).
Burns returned to longform documentary with his most ambitious project to date, an 18-hour history of "Baseball" which aired on PBS in the fall of 1994. He approached the national pastime as a template for understanding changes in modern American society. Ironically, this was the only baseball on the air at the time as the players and owners were embroiled in a bitter strike at the time.
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Executive produced, directed, shot and edited his first documentary feature, "Brooklyn Bridge"
Debut as producer and writer, "The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God" a documentary for PBS (also directed)
Made his signature work, "The Civil War"; debut as musical director
Acting debut, "Gettysburg"
Produced, wrote, directed and sshot the nine-part TV documentary "Baseball" (PBS)
Directed and produced the TV documentary "Thomas Jefferson"
Earned praise for the TV profile of American architecht "Frank Lloyd Wright" (PBS), co-directed with Lynn Novick
"Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony" aired on PBS (November)
General Motors announced rare 10-year commitment to underwrite several film projects to be directed by Burns (June)
Created and directed "Jazz", a 19-hour series for PBS; also served a director of photography
Directed biographical documentary of "Mark Twain"; screened at Telluride Film Festival; aired on PBS in 2002
Directed the PBS documentary, "Horatio's Drive" about the historic journey of motorist Horatio Nelson Jackson
Helmed the PBS documentary about heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson"
Directed "The War," a 14-hour documentary about World War II (aired September 2007 on PBS), earned a DGA nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary
Extended his deal with PBS through the year 2022; which calls for him to deliver at least three major new series as well as several smaller-scale documentaries