For more than two decades, Susan Lacy, the creator and executive producer of the PBS series American Masters, has examined our country’s culture through the lives and achievements of more than 140 visionaries who helped shape it—from Leonard Bernstein and Martha Graham to Louis Armstrong and Lou Reed. “I choose people whose work has really changed their discipline, people of whom one can say that things weren’t quite the same afterward,” says Lacy. Her career first took off at the public television station WNET in New York, where in the late 1970s and early eighties she was the senior programmer for the award-winning Great Performances series and the director of program development for American Playhouse (an esteemed theater series for which she wrote the original proposal). From the moment Lacy first came up with the idea for American Masters, which premiered on PBS in 1986, she has eschewed the formulaic profiles and hastily assembled clip tapes so often found on standard “biography shows” in favor of skillfully crafted documentary films that seamlessly blend interviews, still photos, audio tracks, and rare film footage to provide a look at the humanity behind the paintbrush, the typewriter, or the musical instrument. “I’m interested in what makes Americans tick; I always have been.”
She spent her high school years in Baltimore County, Maryland, and planned to become a scholar in American cultural history or a journalist. But that was before she “got bitten by the film bug.”
After earning an undergraduate degree in American Studies from the University of Virginia and an MA in American Studies from George Washington University, Lacy began work on her doctorate and was a fellow at the Smithsonian Institution. She was also an intern at both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities—internships that, quite literally, proved to be worth their weight in gold. (“I can’t tell you, however, how important it is for me as a filmmaker and producer to have learned how to write a grant proposal during those days at NEA,” she has said.)
In 1978 Lacy went to work at Thirteen/WNET in New York, where—as deputy director of performance programs (1978–84)—she was the senior program executive for the Great Performances series; in addition, she was a founding member and director of program development for the American Playhouse series. While at WNET, Lacy conceived the idea for American Masters, which she envisioned as “real films about incredibly fascinating people who were complex and had struggled a great deal because, of course, it’s never easy to be a pioneer.”
It took Lacy three years to get the series off the ground. During the interim, she took a position as the East Coast head of the Sundance Institute, Robert Redford’s nonprofit foundation dedicated to discovering and nurturing young cinematic talent. “I learned how to craft a narrative and tell a story on film with Sundance,” she later said.
In 1986, when the call came from PBS inviting Lacy to launch American Masters, she was ready. The initial “seed money” for the series had come in the form of a $500,000 development grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
In the beginning, due to funding constraints, the series utilized the same successful formula used in financing American Playhouse: coproduction deals were struck with independent producers, public television stations, and foreign broadcasters. American Masters premiered on June 23, 1986, with Private Conversations, a cinema-vérité documentary by Christian Blackwood about the 1985 television version of Death of a Salesman, directed by Volker Schlöndorff and starring Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich.
The series was a critical success from the get-go. After the first two seasons, which featured documentaries on Billie Holiday, Eugene O’Neill, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton (the latter two winning Emmy Awards for Outstanding Informational Series), American Masters became a production company—producing approximately eighty percent of the films in the series, according to Lacy. To date, more than 140 artists have been featured on the program—a diverse bunch including Julia Child, Norman Rockwell, Paul Robeson, Edward R. Murrow, Norman Mailer, Lucille Ball, George Balanchine, Jasper Johns, Lillian Gish, Ella Fitzgerald, and William Wyler.
Today Lacy is the auteur of American Masters in the complete sense of the word. She decides who will be profiled, hires the researchers and directors, writes grant proposals and handles the budget, supervises the editing, and reserves the right to make the final cut on every film.
“Sometimes, just negotiating access and rights can take years,” Lacy says. (Half of the American Masters budget goes to rights. The Ella Fitzgerald documentary had a budget of $1 million; half of that was used for rights to television and audio clips.) “But once we actually start on a film, the first thing we do is research. Normally we take six to nine months just researching—really learning the story, creating personal timelines, reading the biographies, tracking down the archival material known or unknown, finding out who was important to the person we’re profiling and finding out if those people are still alive. If they’re not alive, was an interview ever done with them? Are there letters, diaries, pictures, whatever?” In the case of Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note—which Lacy wrote, directed, and produced—her staffers went through 50,000 photographs of Bernstein housed at the Library of Congress, and Lacy herself read every one of Bernstein’s letters in the archive before she began filming.
After Lacy has mapped out a program with the filmmakers, she gives them free rein—or as Calvin Skaggs, the producer of an American Masters program on Katherine Anne Porter, once said, “Susan has enough confidence in herself and what she’s doing to have confidence in you. She is one producer who really understands the process of filmmaking.” In addition, her involvement with the programs often extends into the postproduction phase, which—as insiders know—is where a documentary actually gets made.
Over the years, American Masters has been honored with countless Emmy Awards. Today critics continue to heap praise on the series (“If you only had one program with which to make a case against those who dismiss television as trivial or denounce it for debasing our culture, it would be American Masters,” wrote television critic David Zurawik in the Baltimore Sun), and its subjects remain fascinating and timely. The current season, 2005–06, began with a widely praised documentary on Bob Dylan directed by Martin Scorsese.
“I wanted to do for creative people and the creative process what American Playhouse had done for drama, what Nova did for science on PBS,” says Lacy. “At the end of the day, the most important thing is that we’ve made a great program that will stand the test of time.”