Susan Lacy: Master of the 'Masters'

PBS' "American Masters," the Emmy- and Oscar-winning documentary series celebrating America's native and adopted masters in the creative arts, kicks off its fifth season Monday (8 p.m. on Channel 50; 10 p.m. on Channel 28) with a portrait of filmmaker Preston Sturges. Susan King discussed "American Masters" with its creator and executive producer, Susan Lacy.

How did you come up with the idea for "American Masters"?

I used to be at WNET in New York. I was the deputy head of performance programs and we did "Great Performances." We had no place at that time on PBS--and this was seven years ago--to air a regular documentary series which dealt with biographies.

I think there was a kind of prejudice against arts programming and that it wouldn't hold an audience in prime time. I was confident if we did them well, the audience would be there. I set about doing it.

The funny thing is it hasn't gotten any easier (to finance). This series has a slot and it's a perennial, but the money still isn't there for it. Given its success and the quality of it, one would have thought it would be more securely established. It's unbelievable.

Do you spend most of your time raising funds for the series?

When you are dealing with programs like this and particularly in a series that is not financed, if I waited until I had $6 million, I wouldn't have any programs.

We are dealing with older people on the series. Now that (jazz saxophonist) Dexter Gordon just died and we were going to film him for the program about (band leader/bass virtuoso) Charlie Mingus, I am very aware of the need to move, even without the capital. That is considered a no-no, but that's the only way this series has survived. I spend money I don't have, and then I have to make it whole and have it before I go on the air.

How do you plan a season?

A lot of things go into it. We also are working on any given time on infinitely more documentaries than we air in one season. We have long, long lists of important people and important people who knew the important people. We have some stuff in this season which was shot a long time ago.

The other night we shot the 35th anniversary of the New York Shakespeare Festival for a film we are doing on (producer) Joseph Papp. I don't have all the money yet to do the film, but we knew it was an event that couldn't be missed.

There is a great huge master plan in terms of putting a season together. We try to have a balance in the disciplines. I am very conscious of women and minorities. My series falls during a (ratings) sweeps period and the national public broadcasting pledge drive.

There are certain needs the system has during that time, and you tend to have more of the broad-based subjects on then. I feel strongly, though, a series like this has to have integrity, and you can't do a series called "American Masters" and only do pop stars and filmmakers.

Had you completed your documentary on John Cassavetes before he died last year?

That's the only acquisition in the season. We wanted to make a film on Cassavetes and had started conversations with him while he was alive and was very ill. He wanted to do it and then he didn't. When I heard the BBC had done a film that involved all the people we would have involved, I asked to see it and thought it was excellent and bought it.

The major emphasis in this series is to have the programs American-made and be our production and from our point of view. If there is an excellent film that is made somewhere else and the chance of us doing it is no longer there, I think it should be in the series.

Have you had problems with certain artists who don't want to discuss their work and lives?

(American artist) Jasper Johns--he delights in being elusive and the film was very elusive as well. I wanted to call it "Searching for Jasper Johns."

Some don't want to be filmed at this stage in their lives. Martha Graham is an example. Here is one of the great legends of the 20th Century. She's 95 years old and she's not going to be around.

That record won't be there because she is so reluctant to be filmed as an old woman and seen as she is today. There is a vanity on some level and you can completely understand that, but posterity will suffer because finally the film will be made and it will be what somebody else has to say about Martha Graham.

When we are dealing with artists that are still living you need their complete cooperation to be able to make a film that gets to their soul. If they don't want to reveal that, it's pretty tough to do it, and then it becomes subjective.

Would you like to see "American Masters" become a year-round series?

I certainly would like to see that. It's going into its fifth season and I don't see it going away at all. I think we play a real important role in the public TV schedule. If it disappeared it would raise a lot of questions of the purpose of PBS.

The people who are chosen for the series are chosen for a reason. They have made a very substantial contribution to our national heritage in some way. People should know about it.

If they don't, we are making it publicly accessible. We have an obligation to our children to make sure that the legacy of these people who have formed their culture is something that they know about. It's not taught in schools and it's just as important to understand the milieu of a Cole Porter or a Duke Ellington as it is to learn who led a Civil War battle.

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