Susan Lacy's 120 Phone Calls: Q&A With the Producer of PBS's American Masters

By , Contributor

Susan Lacy is one of the most important executives in the history of American public television. Since the 1980s, she has been the prime mover behind the American Masters series. She has been responsible for two of most notable episodes in the history of this distinguished treasure trove of American culture, which has won no less than seven Emmys. The episode on Bob Dylan, directed by Martin Scorsese no less, aired in 2006. And the eagerly awaited episode on Woody Allen, directed by Robert Weide, will air on PBS stations on November 20.

I’m wondering how you first became interested in biography. Did you read biographies as a kid?

What I have an interest in is cultural history. I have a strong academic background in American studies, an interdisciplinary approach. You have to master history, social thought, and so forth. In both undergraduate and graduate school I became fascinated with the interaction among groups of artists, and what was happening culturally, socially, and politically.

One of the most interesting ways to do this in terms of television is through the lives of the creators. Instead of starting with biography, biography became the way I could tell the stories I wanted to tell. A great biography is a way into the artist’s life, their relationship to what is going on around them, and what’s going on within.

You went to the University of Virginia, where the presence of Thomas Jefferson is still strongly felt. Did your collegiate experience there affect what you do with the American Masters series?

When I went, the University of Virginia had two campuses, one for men and one for women. But because I was the editor of the paper, I spent a lot of time on the Charlottesville campus.

I wouldn’t have been able to be the editor of the paper if I had been on the Charlottesville campus all the time. At that time we were as a group of women able to take on leadership positions.

And, continuing with the theme of origins, can you take us back to the origin of the American Masters series? I’m wondering who had the original idea and also how you came to be involved with the show.

A. It was my idea. I came to work at PBS, in the Arts and Performances unit. I learned from my mentor how to make the argument for the importance of the arts on television. We were always fighting with the system to keep what I call the “excellence agenda,” something that could stand up to the excellence of the artists.

Then we decided that there should be an original American drama series on television. That became American Playhouse. For a while I was head of program development. While I was doing that, I learned that you have to look around and find what independent filmmakers were doing, what they needed a final push to complete. We provided the finishing money, and a place in the schedule.

Only the National Endowment for the Arts was supportive. Nobody at PBS liked it; they said, “If this is such a good idea, it would already have happened.”

I insisted that good films had to show at 9:00 pm, because if they’re on a 3:00 am, and nobody watches them, it’s a self-supporting argument that there is no audience for arts programming. I looked around for independent filmmakers, and had a curatorial role in helping to finish them.

So I tried an experiment—we put them on in the summer of 1986. The films were good, and the critics loved them. The programming situation worked in our favor because there was nothing else good that was on—just reruns—and the critics supported them because they had something to write about. The very first one was about the making of The Death of a Salesman, involving Dustin Hoffman and Arthur Miller. It premiered at Sundance. We had an incredible first season.

Nothing was made from scratch in the beginning. I used NEA seed money to help filmmakers complete what they were working on.

Roslyn Walter understood that we were able to create a library of American cultural history. Another part of it for me, because I have an academic background, was creating an archival record. I always had that in the back of my mind. And I have another agenda in mind—the future.

There must be a lot of behind the scenes stories that you can tell. We are all impressed that you persuaded two world-class celebrities who jealously guard their privacy—Bob Dylan and Woody Allen—to allow you to make documentaries about them. Could you tell us how you did it?

From the day I started, Dylan was one of the artists I wanted. I got to know Jeff Rosen, his long-time manager. I had heard that he’s a kind of archivist, with a respect for history, and I knew that Jeff had been conducting interviews with people like Allen Ginsburg.

I called Jeff once a month for 10 years.

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So that’s 120 phone calls, if my math is right.

Yes, that’s right. Jeff said that he had no idea what would happen with this material, and wasn’t sure that he had Bob’s support. Once a month I’d call, and then one day he called and said he had something to show me. I dropped everything and rushed over. He showed me an hour’s worth of assembly—not a film, but an assembly of interviews. I can’t tell you what that moment was like for me. It gave me goose bumps.

It was a complicated deal to put together. Jeff suggested a marriage with a company owned by Nigel Sinclair. He and I decided to make this happen. We knew we had to have a director of great weight. This was going to be a big deal, so we needed a big deal director. When we went to see Marty, it didn’t come as a great surprise to Marty, who had known Dylan. He didn’t know Dylan well, but he did know him. Although Marty didn’t do the interviews himself, he took them and made a story out of them.

The Woody Allen episode airs on November 20. Did it take a lot of time to persuade Woody to agree? And who did the persuading?

I have a relationship with the filmmaker, Bob Weide. Bob had known Woody for a long time, and had made documentaries about Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. And Woody told Bob that he would be willing to cooperate if it were on American Masters. That made me really happy.

Can you tell us a little about what we can look forward to in the Woody Allen episode?

This is the first time Woody has ever participated in a film about himself. You see him going back to his neighborhood. You see his old house, his current house, even his typewriter on which he has typed everything over 50 years... I think everyone is going to love it. It’s a really wonderful film.

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