Imagine Sylvester Stallone as the voice of Paul Revere. ("Adrian!! The British are coming!") Odd, but it could work. Walter Cronkite as Ben Franklin? Terrific.
Mr. Cronkite and Mr. Stallone are accompanied by a star-studded cast unprecedented in a daily animated children's series "Liberty's Kids" (PBS, check local listings beginning Sept. 2). It's the American Revolution and the formation of American democracy treated with taste, high style, and a good deal of humor.
Who better to play Ben Franklin, politician, philosopher, and photo-journalist in the 40-part series, than one of the most respected journalists of our own time, Walter Cronkite?
"They chose me because they liked the voice they thought it sounded like Ben Franklin," says Cronkite of his voiceover stint. "I don't think they required much acting although I guess I threw myself into it a little bit, trying to imagine myself as Ben Franklin."
Cronkite says he likes the fact that one of the great figures in the Revolution was also a newspaper man. "It's nice to know that one of our earliest editors and publishers took such an important role in history," he says.
It occurred to creator/producer Andy Heyward that kids weren't getting enough American history when he took his family to Washington three years ago. As he showed them around the city he rediscovered the history of democracy through his children's eyes.
He's taken that approach with "Liberty's Kids." In each episode, he says, "we follow the adventures of three teenage kids, apprentice reporters in Ben Franklin's print shop. We go around with them and through their stories we see the larger story of the American Revolution and of course, the underpinnings of ... human rights and democracy versus totalitarianism."
The stars came shooting at him, once Cronkite signed on to play Franklin, Mr. Heyward says. "They came to us and said, 'We've heard about this show and want to be a part of it.' "
Annette Bening as Abigail Adams, Dustin Hoffman as Benedict Arnold, and Michael Douglas as George Washington enliven the past, along with such talents as Ben Stiller, Liam Neeson, retired Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf, Whoopi Goldberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Warren Buffett. Heyward ticks off the names with understandable enthusiasm.
"When Sylvester Stallone came in to record his part, he knew everything about it. He plays Paul Revere and he read everything about him... Michael Douglas said, 'This is the first thing I've ever done that my kids will be able to see before they are 17.' "
Jack Rakove, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian from Stanford University in California, oversaw the scripts for accuracy. While the series didn't delve into all the political complexities behind the Revolution, he says, "it's important to remember that the Revolution was both a military and a political struggle.... There's no such thing as independence being attained in the abstract."
The series lays out a basic narrative story that hopefully will attract the imagination of younger students. "Leaders and others are always having to examine their commitments, and I think the series does a good job of bringing that out," says Dr. Rakove.
The series also doesn't shy away from difficult facts of the day. "We all agreed we had to present a show that was historically accurate the good, the bad, and the ugly," says Heyward. For example, the subject of slavery is handled in the series. "We felt ... that the institutions of our government were strong enough to withstand scrutiny. And this was part of the story.... There's a lot of natural drama here."
Cronkite, for one, is hopeful that this dramatic approach to learning will make its way into the classroom. History is taught far too much by rote places, dates, events instead of as the human struggle, he says. History is a fascinating, inherently dramatic story of personal achievement, personal controversy, and the putting forth of ideas.
"I hope it awakens children much earlier in life to history as a story to be listened to, to be read, to be exploited in an intellectual way. If it does that, I hope it will awaken the teaching profession to teach history with a little more drama."
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Since Sept. 11, many people have delved beneath the surface of their patriotism to reflect on what it really means to be an American. That impulse has inspired Peter Jennings's six-part series "In Search of America" (ABC, nightly, Sept. 3-7). It may just be one of the most valuable documentaries of the new season.
Jennings visits an Idaho community protesting the reintroduction of wolves on federal wilderness lands, explores a Southern town's moral conflicts, and talks to Colorado teenagers discovering political rebellion. He demonstrates that American ideals still help us face and cope with our social ills. As one citizen puts it, "We can go in the public square and argue, but at the end of the day, we are all Americans."