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ON PBS, IT'S THE REAL TWAIN WE SHALL MEET.

Byline: David Kronke Television Writer

PASADENA - One of the goals of ``Mark Twain,'' Ken Burns' latest documentary for PBS, is once and for all to put an end to censorship of the author's masterpiece, ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.''

``It's flabbergasting - it represents the demons of each generation, and it's one of the most banned books now,'' said Burns, whose four-hour series (``It's a short film for us,'' he joked) airs Monday and Jan. 15. ``As Ernest Hemingway said, it's the beginning of American letters; for that reason alone we should be studying it.''

Hal Holbrook, who has been portraying the writer and humorist born Samuel Clemens for the past half-century and who appears in Burns' documentary, declared, ``There is confusion in the minds of some people that it is a racist book instead of a book about racism. The use of the word 'n-----' scares people off and insults people, as indeed it should. But it's impossible to create a picture of slavery in the South without that word. If you're doing a Disney version of the South, you eliminate that word, but if you want to tell the truth, you do not eliminate the word 'n-----.' ''

Holbrook continued, ``We are not good at listening to criticism of ourselves. We are not good with satire; we tend to avoid it. In our effort to duck the truth of Mark Twain's criticism of our society, we have assigned 'cynicism' to the truths Mark Twain was telling.''

Burns added, ``Mark Twain is the only person you could bring back today and within 15 minutes he'd get it and be able to skewer the hypocrisies of today. I'm sure Mark Twain would be at the vanguard of continuing to hold our feet to the fire.''

Ron Powers, who has written books on Twain, said that it's about time a serious documentary explored all facets of the man: ``Pop culture is turning him into the Col. Sanders of literature.''

Burns said that, as with all his documentary subjects, he threw out his preconceptions on his subject before starting work. ``One of the terrible things about documentaries is that they're often an expression of what people already knew,'' he said. ``We knew very little going in.

``It was overwhelming getting to know what an extraordinary writer he was - there is no equal in American letters,'' Burns said. ``He said, 'The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.' Twain is so powerful, we just had to get out of the way of him and his story.''

He continued, ``Twain wrote with an almost biblical sense of purpose and certainty. He knew from the start that God was the greatest dramatist ... but his own search (for God) was disappointing. Twain really insinuated himself into my life in personal ways. I found the way he dealt with tragedy very moving.''

A companion book to the series lists many of the bon mots that have been attributed to Twain over the years that, in fact, he did not say. Holbrook joked that he wasn't as careful when putting together his stage show: ``I would use any good remark I could find attributed to him, as long as it would get a laugh. Mark Twain stole a great deal from other fellas, too.''

Powers added, ``I think a lot of what was attributed to Mark Twain was actually uttered by Yogi Berra.'' But that would be another of Burns' documentaries.

Burns' next project will be ``Horatio's Drive,'' about a Vermont doctor who embarked upon the first car trip traversing the United States, which will air next year.

Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of PBS, announced a new newsmagazine series, ``Now With Bill Moyers,'' which will debut Jan. 18. ``Now,'' which was created in order to offer perspective on public issues in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, represents PBS' first collaboration with National Public Radio.

Moyers said he first turned down the offer to do the series because he was too busy preparing a series of other documentaries for PBS, but ``I heard her enthusiasm to bring relevance back to public television. ... I called her back and said I'd do it.'' That was six weeks ago; a staff has been assembled in the ensuing weeks, run by former ABC News production executive John Siceloff.

Each episode will offer a documentary report, interviews, contributions from NPR reporters and analysis. It won't look like the gab that the news networks foist off as debate, Moyers promised. ``They've made partisanship more paramount than analysis,'' he said. ``It hasn't added to the understanding or insight into the dilemmas facing our society.''

In other news, Mitchell admitted that getting corporate underwriting for PBS series has become more difficult in light of the drooping economy, but one documentary series in particular - ``Islam: Empire of Faith'' - had difficulties finding funding. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, however, with the White House requesting copies of the documentary to better understand the religion, ``It would be easier to get a program on that subject funded today.''

She noted that on Sept. 10, the Web site dedicated to the series received 500 views. Four days later, it was 656,000. PBS is currently producing another series on the Muslim faith, which will also explore Muslims practicing in America, that will air later this year.

Mitchell also assailed Congress for being so stingy with its funding of PBS. ``I find it shocking that 349 stations have to beg (viewers) for 85 percent of their operating budgets,'' she said. ``We're the only leading country in the world where that's true of public television stations.''

KCET announced Monday that the next production in its series ``PBS Hollywood Presents'' will be an adaptation of Michael Frayn's Tony Award-winning drama ``Copenhagen.'' Frayn will write the screenplay for the production, which will be a co-produced with the BBC.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1) American icon Mark Twain is the subject of an upcoming PBS documentary.

(2) ``Now With Bill Moyers'' is a landmark co-production between PBS and NPR.
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 8, 2002
Words:1019
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