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From changing The Tonight Show’s policy when it comes to having politicians appear to the challenges in deciding whom to interview, PBS’ American Experience puts its focus on former president Bill Clinton with a two-part special set for February.
Filmmakers, including producer Barak Goodman and Harry Thomason, spoke with reporters at Wednesday’s Clinton panel as part of the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in Pasadena. Here are three things to know about the Feb. 20-21 special.
1. Neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton were interviewed for the two-part American Experience special. Producer Barak Goodman says more than 70 people were interviewed for the project, but in keeping with the franchise’s policy, neither of the Clintons were interviewed for the doc. “It becomes memoir,” he told reporters. Also among those not interviewed: Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp. “We felt it would tilt [the project] toward sensationalism,” Goodman said. Meanwhile, the decision not to include the former first lady was two-fold, producers said. “We have interviewed some first ladies in the past and what they end up contributing has been relatively little,” exec producer Mark Samels said, noting that Hillary’s participation would have also been constrained since she’s currently in office.
2. How did Clinton wind up on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show when the former late-night host had a clear policy prohibiting politicians from guesting on the show? Producer Harry Thomason, a longtime friend of the Clintons who produced 1992’s The Man from Hope — the centerpiece of the 1992 Democratic National Convention – told reporters that after the then-Arkansas governor bombed with a long-winded speech at a 1988 DNC stop in Atlanta, the campaign pushed hard to get him on the Tonight Show in an effort to change Clinton’s momentum. After Carson turned down the campaign’s request to have Clinton on the show – noting its policy against having politicians – Carson later agreed to have the young Democrat on the show as a musical guest to play the saxophone. The kicker? The morning after Clinton’s booking, Thomason recalled a call from Clinton’s former chief of staff saying that they didn’t want him to play the sax on the show. And the Tonight Show’s policy was forever changed.
3. Goodman noted that the hardest challenge in making Clinton was not coming to a conclusion about the former president. “You can’t ever tie him up in a neat bow, he’s so vastly contradictory as a person,” he said. “[The hardest part was] keeping that in play for the whole film, keeping both sides apparent and not trying to resolve him.
Clinton airs Feb. 20 and 21 on PBS.
Email: Lesley.Goldberg@thr.com; Twitter: @Snoodit
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