PBS Brings Founding Father Benjamin Franklin to Life

By McAlister, Nancy | The Florida Times Union, November 19, 2002 | Go to article overview
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PBS Brings Founding Father Benjamin Franklin to Life


McAlister, Nancy, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Nancy McAlister, Times-Union staff writer

Richard Easton's best roles have ranged from Hamlet and Macbeth to his Tony Award-winning portrayal of A.E. Housman in Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love.

Now he's been chosen to personify the most famous American of his day in Benjamin Franklin (9 p.m. today and tomorrow, PBS). Easton plays Franklin as a combination of Bill Gates, Dave Barry, Rupert Murdoch and Henry Kissinger.

In a special that brings Franklin and his times to life, Easton speaks directly to viewers with words assembled from Franklin's own writings, which in their surprisingly modern tone include slang and jokes.

The cast also includes Dylan Baker as young Franklin, Blair Brown as his sister Jane Mecom, Peter Donaldson as John Adams and Roberta Maxwell as his wife, Deborah. Their dialogues are taken from diaries, letters, essays and other historical documents. The production was shot at historical sites in Philadelphia, Deerfield Village, Mich., and Colonial Williamsburg, Va., as well as at studios in New York and Vilnius, Lithuania.

Mixing documentary and biography with some innovative computer and camera techniques, Benjamin Franklin follows the founding father's career from childhood years in Boston when, as the 15th son of a candlemaker, he began as an apprentice in an older brother's print shop. He bolted to Philadelphia, where he not only matured as a printer, writer and businessman but also displayed his skills as one of America's first volunteers.

His story has been called part Dickens, part Horatio Alger as he evolved into a self-taught scientific genius. Franklin won the 18th century's highest science honor for discovering the relationship of lightning to electricity. The lightning rod, bifocals, Franklin stove and a more efficient postal service are among his credits.

But it was Franklin's achievements in the second half of his life that went beyond science to diplomacy and the birth of a nation. After almost 18 years of living in England, he became a passionate revolutionary. At age 70, he was dispatched to France to seek aid for the American Revolution. He was a key player in the creation of a new government, becoming the only man to sign the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris and the U.S. Constitution.

Adjectives such as radical, brilliant, witty and driven are used to describe Franklin's intellect. Easton is an admirer of all those sides, but particularly of his humor and curiosity. The actor, who has performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company in a career spanning more than 50 years, calls his subject an active, generous and funny man, which makes him distinct from the typical image of the founding fathers.

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