Policymakers | General Education

John Adams: One-term president, prime-time HBO star

NEWSDAY   |  March 16, 2008 by Verne Gay

Who (or what) is John Adams?

a) A rather pricey but good beer.

b) Amy Adams’ brother.

c) The second president of the United States.

If you picked a or b, then, boy, has HBO got a miniseries to set you straight.

Beginning Sunday at 8 p.m., nine brilliant hours on a president whom few probably can identify, and even fewer say (exactly) why he deserves nine hours on HBO in the first place. Consider a poll conducted by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni a few years ago. The poll found that only 33 percent of college seniors knew that George Washington commanded the troops at Yorktown.

How would these seniors do with our little quiz above?

Overcoming the deficiencies of American education has never been a singular goal of HBO’s, so to say that the miniseries is a gamble is stating the obvious. But if this gamble succeeds, then this Founding Father may almost become as famous as the beer (Sam, that is).

Based on David McCullough’s bestselling 2001 biography, “John Adams” is the progeny of Hollywood royalty. As producer, Tom Hanks has long championed this series. Gary Goetzman (“The Silence of the Lambs”) has co-produced it. With Paul Giamatti as Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail, alongside a cast of (literally) hundreds, 18th century America–raw, violent, boiling and almost unquenchably vibrant–comes alive during these hours.

And so, by association, does a one-term president who died 182 years ago.

But why this one?

According to McCullough’s 700-page account, Adams was brilliant, dogged, passionate, loyal, deeply learned and deeply dyspeptic. He had the misfortune to be overshadowed by charismatic leaders like Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who bookended his own presidency, which began March 4, 1797. But without him the revolution would have lost its intellectual moorings, and almost certainly its financial and diplomatic ones as well (he raised money in Holland for the cause during a particularly pivotal moment).

Adams was also a two-term vice president, and wrote thusly to Abigail (in one of thousands of surviving letters), “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

Translation: This job stinks.

Yes, he complained (often) and bickered with many. He feuded bitterly with Jefferson (with whom he’d eventually reconcile), and even today his official White House biography speaks delicately of a certain “vanity.” One gets the sense from McCullough’s bio that the Continental Congress shipped him overseas because he wasn’t much fun to be around.

During a call with reporters, someone observed that Giamatti was often drawn to “edgy, neurotic characters.” What say Paul?

“What was sort of intriguing to me is that boiling under the surface [Adams had] a lot of anxiety about things, and I thought it would be interesting to dramatize,” said the Oscar-nominated (” Cinderella Man”) actor. “But few actors ever get the opportunity to play a character like this, and run the gamut [of emotions] from depression to being exultant. He was enormously intelligent, but also earthy. He was in love with his wonderful wife, and would fight with her. I got to do everything in this part.”

Still, a curious subject for a multimillion-dollar biopic. An intriguing one as well.

A small-screen natural

In a recent call with writers, McCullough (perhaps best known to the TV generation as the wonderfully avuncular former host of PBS’ “American Experience”) explained why Adams has been dismissed, as well as why he’s a natural for the small screen, too.

“He was in the shadow of those two tall and charismatic and we don’t celebrate one-term presidents. I don’t know why. I guess we don’t like losers, and unless you were killed in office in your first term, you’re pretty well forgotten. He also a leader of the [long extinct] Federalist Party, for which there is no funding device to have annual Adams dinners to raise money for.”

Nevertheless, the nation’s amnesia about its second commander-in-chief “is disgraceful. Except for Washington, there is no more important an American in the Revolutionary era than John Adams.”

As a TV star, what is exciting–and forbiddingly difficult–about Adams is that he was an intellectual. He wrote compulsively to his beloved Abigail–gorgeous, detailed, lengthy and profoundly literate letters that described with near-Technicolor virtuosity an especially vital and important moment in American life.

That’s nice. In letters. But on screen?

This series opens on March 5, 1770, and just as Adams (34 at the time) is settling in for a cozy evening in front of the fire, with his cherished wife and loving children at his side, explosions are heard, and he rushes out into the night. Five Bostonians lie dead in the street, with the muzzles of British soldiers’ flintlocks still smoking.

A grand career is launched

A trial ensues, and Adams—who believes in the rule of law as though it is the writ of God–defends the soldiers. “I am for the law,” he snaps at Sam Adams (Danny Huston), who demands to know why his cousin is abetting the enemy. “Is there another side?”

The soldiers of the Boston Massacre are acquitted (“facts are a stubborn thing,” John Adams explains to the jury) and a grand career is launched.

In a recent phone interview, Kirk Ellis, the veteran TV scribe who spent five years with McCullough pounding his “John Adams” into a workable script, explains that in conversations with both Hanks and Adams’ famous biographer, “[They] said, we want no villains in the piece. The British shouldn’t be the bad guys because they were British. [Hanks] has a hereditary distaste for movie convention and I share that.”

Of necessity, Ellis and the production team were forced to become brutal editors, too; Adams, after all, spent 90 very packed years on the planet. “We didn’t want to have to go in illuminating every single point about [characters’] backstories,” Ellis says. By starting with the Boston Massacre, “we’re lopping off the first 35 years of his life, but that moment set Adams on the path he followed until his death . He was a man of duty, and a stubborn man.”

And now, after all these long, lonely years, finally ready for his close-up.


Part 1: “Join or Die” (Sunday, 8-9:10 p.m.)–Aftermath of the Boston Massacre.

Part 2: “Independence” (Sunday, 9:10-10:45 p.m.)–To 1776, and the Declaration of Independence.

Part 3: “Don’t Tread on Me” (March 23, 9-10:15 p.m.)–Appointed minister to France.

Part 4: “Reunion” (March 30, 9-10:15 p.m.)–Abigail joins family in Paris, after the British surrender at Yorktown.

Part 5: “Unite or Die” (April 6, 9-10:15 p.m.)–Elected vice president, then president.

Part 6: “Unnecessary War” (April 13, 9-10:15 p.m.)–Signs the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts.

Part 7: “Peacefield” (April 20, 9-10 p.m.)–Abigail dies of typhoid fever. Adams writes his memoirs and dies July 4, 1826–the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, while Thomas Jefferson dies the same day.


The ‘Adams’ family

Here’s a viewers’ guide to the extensive cast of “John Adams”:

John Adams: Paul Giamatti, quirky Oscar-nominated actor and son of Bart (late baseball commissioner and Yale president). Best known for his role as a disaffected high-school English teacher/ oenophile in “Sideways,” but also played Nick Claus in “Fred Claus” and Howard Stern’s boss in “Private Parts.”

Abigail Adams: Laura Linney, luminous New York actress with three Oscar nods (“The Savages,” “Kinsey,” “You Can Count on Me”), plus a stint on “Frasier,” to boot.

Thomas Jefferson: Stephen Dillane, a seasoned British actor with a relatively low profile this side of the Atlantic (at least to TV viewers), although he won a lead actor Tony in 2000 for Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.”

Benjamin Franklin: Tom Wilkinson, another wonderful British actor with some close-but-still-no-cigar brushes with the Motion Picture Academy at Oscar time (for 2001’s “In the Bedroom” and most recently for “Michael Clayton”).

George Washington: David Morse, veteran stage, screen and TV actor currently on Broadway in “The Seafarer.” TV fans with long memories may remember him as Dr. Jack Morrison on “St. Elsewhere,” and more recently as Michael Tritter on “House.” At 6 feet, 4 inches, he’s a good height to play the lofty first president.

Alexander Hamilton: Rufus Sewell, another veteran British actor (“Dark City,” “A Knight’s Tale”).

Samuel Adams (patriot and cousin to the president, most famous for namesake beer): Danny Huston (John’s son and Anjelica’s half-brother), whose movie credits include “21 Grams” and “The Aviator.” He’s currently filming 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”


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