Getting to know 'George Washington'

Get ready to surrender what is left of your belief in the myths about George Washington's cherry tree and wooden teeth. George Washington (CBS, Sunday, 8-11 p.m.; Tuesday, 9-11 p.m.; Wednesday, 8- 11 p.m.) is a myth-smasher. It dispels the tales about the cherry tree and the wooden teeth by ignoring them.

But it is a smashingly good show on its own, proving that it is possible for an American miniseries to challenge the best of the great BBC miniseries. It is gorgeously photographed, straightforwardly written, expertly directed, and superbly acted.

''George Washington'' is based on accurate historical fact and filled with responsible dramatization. Whenever it gets a shade too academic for the entertainment-seekers, the script tastefully manages to personalize the life of Washington and the people around him, adding a bit of spice to wake up viewers who may be nodding off. Anybody interested in a step-by-step inside story of the winning of the war of independence will find the miniseries fascinating.

''George Washington,'' based on a four-volume Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Washington by James Thomas Flexner, begins in 1743 at his father's death. It takes him through his days as a surveyor, the French and Indian War, his premature retirement, his unrequited love for his best friend's wife, his marriage to Martha, his return to the military to lead American troops in the Revolutionary War, and finally, after quelling a threatened coup by his own officers, his return to Martha and Mount Vernon. The presidential years are left for, one hopes, a sequel.

Throughout the miniseries the viewer comes to feel the vast geographical unknown that was America in Washington's time - as well as the political unknowns. One can watch the Colonial relationship with the British evolve into revolution. It is clear that George Washington, with his experience in coping with the unorthodox early ''guerrilla warfare'' during the French and Indian War , was the ideal choice for commander in chief. If there is one major weakness in the presentation, it is the absence of maps that would help explain just where the strategic fighting was taking place at all times.

Shot on locations in Virginia and Pennsylvania, ''George Washington'' was directed with great feeling for the period by Buzz Kulik from a script that skillfully balances dramatic license and historical accuracy. It features actors Patty Duke Astin, Jaclyn Smith, David Dukes, Lloyd Bridges, Jose Ferrer, Hal Holbrook, Trevor Howard, Richard Kiley, and Robert Stack. All of them manage to bring their characters to life without appearing to be engaged in ''cameo'' hijinks. But it is Barry Bostwick, in a masterly portrayal of the complex, restrained, Hamlet-like Washington, who brings the most perception and perspective to the extraordinary show.

Don't expect a miniseries like ''Celebrity'' or ''Lace.'' ''George Washington'' is not easy fun-and-games. Entertaining as it is, it still demands something of a commitment from viewers. George, despite the efforts of Bostwick and Flexner to liven him up, is not the most charismatic personality - in the Colonies or on the home screen.

General Motors, the sponsor of ''George Washington,'' has organized a superb outreach program which will see to it that the miniseries is used in thousands of schools and organizations as a classroom exercise. That, together with the millions who will watch the miniseries for pure entertainment, may serve to establish George Washington as a hero to be understood as well as admired. A chat with biographer Flexner

There's a devilish gleam in author James Thomas Flexner's eye as this gray-bearded teddy bear of a man insists upon telling me his reply to the question most asked of him.

''How did he throw the silver dollar across the Potomac? Well, money went farther in those days!'' Over lunch at the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel here, he laughs heartily at his own joke. ''I'm working on an answer for the cherry tree, too,'' he admits.

Is there a huge believability gap between George Washington, the myth, and the real George Washington?

''Tremendous. I wanted at one time to do a book comparing what I got to know about Washington with the Washington myths and then I realized that in order to do that you would have to do a complete social history of the periods in which the myths developed.

''Now there's a new myth which has just come up because of the gossip around this show, and it is worrying me because it has the makings of another cherry tree story. As you know, Martha burned all her correspondence with George after his death. The story going around is that George must have brought the letters to Martha and told her that she was such a bad speller she had to throw them into the fire. But Washington was at least as bad a speller as Martha. Nobody put their minds to uniform spelling in those days.

''I think she did it because she had shared her man for so many years with the public that she thought there should just be something that was private. It is highly reasonable to my mind.''

Flexner's 1973 National Book Award four-volume study of Washington (later distilled into the one-volume ''Washington: The Indispensable Man'') won a special Pulitzer Citation. The miniseries covers only the first two volumes.

''There's a desire on everybody's part to do the rest of Washington's life on television. But,'' he says with a shrug, ''I gather it isn't practical if there ain't no ratings.''

Are there distortions in the script?

''There are things they have emphasized that I would not have emphasized,'' Flexner admits reluctantly. But he says he would have objected vehemently ''if they were wrong. I do think my book has been surprisingly influential on the script. Much more than I would have believed possible.''

Since at the end of the war there was still no constitution, did Washington ever consider becoming king?

''You had the same situation that develops at the end of every revolution when the old has been cut down and there is a certain amount of chaos. There is always a tendency to look for a man on horseback. And in every revolution I can think of except the American Revolution, they ended up with a man on horseback. Washington refused to get on the horse.''

Mr. Flexner defends the choice of Barry Bostwick to play George Washington. ''People ask how a tall, rusty-haired guy can play Washington. Well, George Washington was 6 foot 2 and rusty haired. Did you know that Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton were all redheads? That probably explains the revolution ,'' he chuckles. '' I used to be one, too.''

Flexner believes that in the 19th century there was a tendency to picture all our heroes as spotless - and slightly inhuman. Washington was regarded as such with cherry tree stories and the like. Then, according to Mr. Flexner, along came the Vietnam war and the tendency of some Americans to throw mud at their forefathers. That's when he decided to write the biography.

''I decided to throw out all the garbage and go back to the original documents. I pursuaded myself I'd never heard of George Washington before and I pretty well ended up with the George Washington as seen by his own contemporaries. He wasn't a pompous old spook with wooden false teeth. He was the most popular man of his generation, much more popular than Jefferson.''

Does Flexner believe George Washington was a happy man?

''I think he was satisfied that he had worked very hard to be the kind of man he wished to be in order to carry out his ideals. I think he was happy that he had done so. But he died unhappy because he wanted to be everybody's president. And eventually Jefferson and Madison turned against him. He was very unhappy to no longer have the support of the entire American people. But he did nothing about it. He retired from the presidency when he didn't have to. And then he took no part in the campaign to succeed himself.''

Would he be happy with what he would find if he were to visit America today?

Flexner looks sternly at the interviewer. Then, he smiles broadly just to make certain that it is clear he is not angry. ''Oh, I never answer such questions - even if I could, which I can't.''

What would James Thomas Flexner consider success for this miniseries?

''You know, I started out not knowing whether George Washington was a hero or a villain. But as I got to know him better I really came to feel that he was a stupendously brave man. And then I thought that was something the American people ought to know. I think the miniseries can accomplish some of that much better than a book.

''I hope the miniseries will help convince the whole younger generation that George Washington really was a human being, and an interesting one. Who knows, it may crack open the whole dead interest in the early history of America.''

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