Retro : Buster and Bergen: Look Back With Laughter


A&E;'s popular “Biography” series profiles two of America’s most original funny men this week: Buster Keaton and Edgar Bergen.

“Buster Keaton: Genius in Slapshoes,” which airs Wednesday, pays tribute to the extraordinary stone-faced silent film pioneer who would have been 100 this year. Featured in the one-hour special--the first American documentary on Keaton--are interviews with his wife Eleanor, Bill Cosby, Richard Lewis and Sid Caesar, clips of various interviews with Keaton before his death in 1966 and an array of memorable scenes from such classic Keaton films as “The General,” “Sherlock Jr.” and “College.”

“Edgar Bergen,” which airs Thursday, chronicles the career of the innovative ventriloquist who gave the world the beloved wisecracking Charlie McCarthy and the sweetly shy Mortimer Snerd. Bergen’s family--wife Frances, daughter Candice and son Kris--Bob Hope, Brian Henson, Ann-Margret, David Copperfield and “Jack Benny Show” writer George Balzer offer personal insights into the performer. Also included are some never-before-seen Bergen home movies and delicious sound bites from his long-running radio show.

Both documentaries were written, produced and directed by journalist Peter Jones, who is best known for his popular American Movie Classics series “AMC in Hollywood With Peter Jones.”


Because “Biography” tends to do more contemporary figures, it took Jones nine months to persuade A&E; to approve the making of the documentaries.

With Keaton, Jones says, “we finally broke the sound barrier. They haven’t green-lighted any silent-era people. The whole pitch to ‘Biography’ was that you know you are going to watch a great story. Let’s complement the Lance Itos and Donald Trumps with someone who had an incredible career the audience might not be as familiar with, but is a real page turner. You have much more freedom when it’s not a subject that people are so familiar with.”

Jones, though, keeps his point of view about his subjects in the background. “I want the audience to make a decision based on the people I have chosen to be in the program,” he explains. “I think you get a sense after it’s all over of how I may feel. But I try to let the subjects move the story along. Buster’s childhood--there’s a lot of controversy over whether he was abused or wasn’t. I just let it sit there--listening to his friends, listening to very intelligent people on the subject say their piece. My feeling, of course, was that he was.”

After interviewing Eleanor Keaton, Jones says: “You just see what he fell in love with. Eleanor had a certain dryness and matter-of-factness that you knew Buster would love. Here Buster Keaton is the great American comic and a genius and here’s a woman, who for 25 years was married to him, and is still so vital. ... I mean that’s a real resource. There are so many people really like that who don’t get much attention. There’s so much in her head ... Because she is a little bit more withholding, it takes time to get her to open up. When she does, you are getting a real first-person account.”


Like Keaton’s, the documentary on Bergen was made in cooperation with his family. “It’s such a great story,” Jones says of Bergen, who, unlike his colorful wooden creation Charlie McCarthy, was very private and reserved. “The dynamics of that family relationship is so extraordinary. They are from four different generations: You have Edgar, who was born at the turn of the century; Frances, who was the next generation, born in the ‘20s; Candy, born in the ‘40s; and Kris, born in the ‘60s.

Jones found the “Murphy Brown” star “very much cut out of the same cloth as her father. She’s a very private person. She acknowledges that.”

The Bergen home movies featured in the documentary are particularly insightful, especially the clip of a 5-year-old Candice singing “The Tennessee Waltz” at her turtle’s funeral.

“He always had her doing something,” Jones says. “Never just a kid playing. It is always, ‘Candy, a little louder.’ It was more like a screen test than regular home movies.”


As for the audio clips of Bergen’s radio show, Jones says: “I love leaving something to the imagination. With television you get ‘tele’ and ‘vision.’ I love seeing just a shot of the radio because the audience back then, that’s what they did. They looked at the radio. They were listening, but they were all watching the radio. ... It’s better for them to think how gorgeous Marlene Dietrich is, instead of just showing them a picture.”

“Biography: Buster Keaton: Genius in Slapshoes” airs Wednesday at 5 and 9 p.m. on A&E;: “Edgar Bergen” airs Thursday at 5 and 9 p.m. on A&E.;