The new Ken Burns series explores the life of a scientist, inventor, writer, diplomat and signer of the declaration of independence and the constitution

LANSING, MI; February 25, 2022 — BenjaminFranklin, a new two-part documentary directed by filmmaker Ken Burns, will be broadcast on WKAR TV on April 4 and 5, 2022, from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. and streamed on video.wkar.org. PBS.org and the PBS Video app. The film, written by Dayton Duncan (Country music, National parks) and produced by David Schmidt (The Vietnam War) and Ken Burns, explores the life and work of one of the most important figures in American history – a prolific writer and publisher, a revolutionary scientist and inventor, a world-renowned diplomat and a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

Franklin, whose life was celebrated as a quintessential American story, was anything but typical. His 84 years lasted for most of the 18th century, a time of revolutionary change in science, technology, literature, politics, and government—change that Franklin himself helped bring forward. He started the first public library in America, organized a volunteer fire company, and founded an academy that eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. His annual publication, “Poor Richard’s Almanack”, set a blueprint for future comedians such as Mark Twain and contained maxims that are still part of our common lexicon. And his famous experiments with electricity led to one of his most important inventions: the lightning rod.

While Franklin was committed to Enlightenment ideals—always striving to better himself, his community, and humanity as a whole—he was also full of contradictions. He could be whimsical but philosophical, folksy but ruthless, generous but shrewdly calculating, and broad-minded but deeply prejudiced. Critically, especially for a man so associated with independence and individual freedom, Franklin enslaved people and did not become an abolitionist until very late in life. House Franklin had at least six slaves, including Peter, Jemima, Othello, George, John, and King. Franklin’s Diary, the Pennsylvania Gazette, also advertised the sale of slaves and published notices of runaways. And while he publicly denounced white settlers who indiscriminately killed Indigenous peoples, he also championed the expansion of white settlements on Indigenous lands.

“Benjamin Franklin was a fascinating and complicated person who helped shape our contemporary world,” said Ken Burns. “If we see him for more than his long list of accomplishments, we recognize a flawed man who challenges himself and his contemporaries as he tries to understand and improve the world around him. One of best and most prolific writers of the 18th century, Franklin both embodies and documents the dynamic social, scientific, and political changes of this revolutionary era. His story is one of hope, with faith in the common man. But its shortcomings are also a reminder of that country’s failure to fight slavery at the time of its founding and the racial divisions that continue to plague our country today.

“Every American discovers Benjamin Franklin in elementary school, but often it stops there,” said David Schmidt, the film’s producer. “He’s too interesting, too complicated and too important a character not to go back to. We tried to present Franklin as a real person who lived a real life, separate from the myths that followed him through time. His biography is particularly primed to inform us of our history.His 70 years before signing the Declaration of Independence tell us of America before the United States, and in his last 15 years he played a pivotal role in the creation of the United States.”

Actor Mandy Patinkin provides Franklin’s voice. Burns called Patinkin’s reading “distinctive and transcendent”, noting that Patinkin’s voice and timing seem to perfectly capture Franklin, finding just the good sense of humor and curiosity about life that Franklin exhibited in his many written.

benjamin franklin includes interviews with some of the nation’s foremost scholars on early American history, including Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson, who also served as the project’s senior adviser, and the late Bernard Bailyn (Harvard); HW Brands (Texas-Austin); Christopher Leslie Brown (Colombia); Joyce Chaplin (Harvard); Ellen R. Cohn (Yale); Philip Dray (new school); Erica Armstrong Dunbar (Rutgers); Joseph J. Ellis (Mt. Holyoke); Clay Jenkinson; William E. Leuchtenburg (UNC); Stacy Schiff; Sheila L. Skemp (Mississippi); and Gordon S. Wood (Brown).

Series advisers included HW Brands; Joyce E. Chaplin; Ellen R. Cohn; Erica Armstrong Dunbar; William E. Leuchtenburg; Jean M. O’Brien; Page Talbott; and Karin Wulf. The voices were provided by Mandy Patinkin; Carolyn McCormick; Josh Lucas; Paul Giamatti; Liam Neeson; Joe Morton; and Adam Arkin.

A production of Florentine Films and WETA Washington, DC, benjamin franklin was directed and produced by ken burns; written by Dayton Duncan; produced by David Schmitt and Ken Burns; co-produced by Katy Haas and Craig Melish; and associated produced by Emilie Mosher. The film was edited by Craig Melish. The film is narrated by Pierre Coyote (HEMINGWAY, COUNTRY MUSIC, THE VIETNAM WAR). Squire Buddies was the principal cinematographer. The executive in charge of WETA is John F. Wilson.

PBS LearningMedia conducts extensive research to better understand how educators teach Benjamin Franklin and the Colonial and Revolutionary periods, how these lessons impact learning, and how popular texts shape existing narratives about complex historical figures and hard truths on the time. The research will inform the content, structure and implementation of an evolving series of professional learning workshops intended to support educators so that they can more accurately teach authentic and whole stories and deepen knowledge and student engagement. A collection of educational resources for grades 5-12, also informed by research, will be posted on the Ken Burns in the Classroom site on PBS LearningMedia ahead of the program’s broadcast.

benjamin franklin will be available to stream for free on all station-branded PBS platforms, including video.wkar.org, PBS.org and the PBS Video App, available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO. PBS station members can view the documentary through PBS Passport as part of a comprehensive collection of Ken Burns films.