Posted by the San Jose Mercury News Dec. 7, 2013.
By Bruce Newman
SAN JOSE — We see a small man sitting in a large, overstuffed chair, and the chair seems to be winning. Often described as elfin, the man is 60 now but still possesses the most totally awesome set of bangs in show business. For an hour, he sits and talks, hardly moving. And yet our perspective of him constantly changes — panning left, panning right, zooming in and out — in a way that is vaguely annoying. We hear an actor’s voice, one we sort of recognize and sort of don’t — maybe F. Murray Abraham, somebody like that.
“My mother died of cancer when I was 11. There wasn’t a moment when I was growing up that I didn’t know she was dying. But it wasn’t until later, when I went to the movies with my father, that I saw him cry for the first time. Movies had an emotional power that allowed him to do that. I decided then and there that I would become a filmmaker. What I wanted was to be Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford or Howard Hawks.”
Who he became, instead, was Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker acclaimed for such PBS blockbusters as “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “Jazz.” In town to receive the Steinbeck Award at San Jose State University Friday evening, Burns conducted a master class for students and alums of the school’s Television, Radio, Film and Theater Department — or what department chairman David Kahn described as an “intimate conversation” — on a campus stage at the Hal Todd Studio Theater.