WITNESS to History

By Guglielmino, Janine | American Forests, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview
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WITNESS to History

Guglielmino, Janine, American Forests


As a camera crew deftly manipulates a 20-foot-long camera lens, actor James Whitmore adjusts his shirt and checks his lines on the TelePrompTer.

He is a bonus for tourists spending a sunny afternoon touring George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, and many gather under the trees to watch and listen as the man best known for his historical portrayals--and as the kindly gardener in Miracle-Gro ads--points to a nearby tulip poplar Washington planted more than 200 years ago.

"These trees around us are part of our lives and our history," Whitmore recites. "And while no one can predict the future, one thing is for certain. Our trees will be there, guarding our children and their grandchildren, standing as silent witnesses to all that unfolds, for generations to come."

Those trees and nearly 20 others are featured in an upcoming hour-long PBS documentary, "Silent Witnesses: America's Historic Trees," which recounts American history through the "eyes" of trees. Whitmore, a self-professed history lover, is narrating.

And holding court.

"I'm in love with you!" yells Betty Perano of St. Charles, Missouri.

"Thank you. Bless your heart," Whitmore responds with a grin and a wink. He would repeat those words often that day.

The connection between trees and history is a natural one for the Tony Award-winning actor. In a national tour of "Bully!" Whitmore played one of his favorite presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, whose family coat of arms means, "He who plants, conserves.

"Did you know that Theodore Roosevelt was a frequent visitor to Mt. Vernon?" Whitmore asks as he arrives on the set, launching into a story about the Roosevelt and one of his secretaries of state.

People mark important occasions in different ways. For Whitmore, it's often been trees.

His mother planted a maple upon the birth of each of Whitmore's three sons. The story of Johnny Appleseed, who made his fortune by planting apple trees from Massachusetts to Ohio, is a favorite. And Whitmore frets over Monterey pines on his oceanfront property that have fallen to pitch canker.

A gaggle of teenagers stop along a nearby gravel path to catch a glimpse of the star. Whitmore responds with hugs and smiles, removing his ever-present pipe to wish them well. It's a special day for him. Not only is he doing work related to his favorite subject, but it's also his 78th birthday.

"[Trees] have been witness to all our grandeur, all our silliness, all our mistakes, and all our victories," Whitmore says during a break in the filming, explaining why he chose to lend his powerful voice to the cause. "They act as a portal or a door, showing us that we ought to go back and do the things right that we have and not do the things we haven't done right."

Whitmore has starred in dozens of films and plays based on historical events, earning two Academy Award nominations and his Tony for Best Supporting Actor in Command Decision. He has starred in more than 50 films and recently completed a two-episode guest spot on ABC's Emmy Award-winning series "The Practice," making him a familiar figure for young and old.

His passion for history grew during his tour of duty in the Marines during World War II, which "changed a lot of things I once thought were true," says Whitmore, adding that Americans should study history to understand their past.

"Just being a citizen of probably the greatest country that's ever existed means you gotta know something about it. It's just terribly important to understand the past. History is much more fascinating than fiction."

He says he's thrilled to narrate the special because AMERICAN FORESTS' Famous & Historic Trees program "gets people interested in history," Whitmore says.

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