This season American Masters features an eclectic new line-up of documentaries about scientist James Watson, entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., country music star Charley Pride, feminist singer and activist Holly Near, media mogul Joseph Pulitzer, photographer Garry Winogrand, choral music conductor Robert Shaw, and other artistic and cultural giants.
Here’s an overview of the lives and creative journeys American Masters will be exploring in Season 33:
Thrust into the limelight for discovering the secret of life at age 25 with Francis Crick, influential Nobel Prize-winning scientist James Watson has thrived on making headlines ever since. His discovery of DNA’s structure, the double helix, revolutionized human understanding of how life works. He was a relentless and sometimes ruthless visionary who led the Human Genome project and turned Harvard University and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory into powerhouses of molecular biology. With unprecedented access to Watson, his wife Elizabeth and sons Rufus and Duncan over the course of a year, American Masters explores Watson’s evolution from socially awkward postdoc to notorious scientific genius to discredited nonagenarian, also interviewing his friends, his colleagues, scientists and historians. Controversial and unapologetic, Watson still thrives on competition and disruption. The film uncovers his signature achievements, complexities and contradictions, including his penchant for expressing unfiltered and objectionable points of view. Directed and produced by Mark Mannucci.
Premieres Wednesday, January 2 at 10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings)
Sammy Davis, Jr., had the kind of career that was indisputably legendary, so vast and multi-faceted that it was dizzying in its scope and scale. And yet, his life was complex, complicated and contradictory. Davis strove to achieve the American Dream in a time of racial prejudice and shifting political territory. He was the veteran of increasingly outdated show business traditions trying to stay relevant; he frequently found himself bracketed by the bigotry of white America and the distaste of black America; he was the most public black figure to embrace Judaism, thereby yoking his identity to another persecuted minority.
Explore the entertainer’s vast talent and journey for identity through the shifting tides of civil rights and racial progress during 20th-century America in this new film directed by Sam Pollard (American Masters – August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand). Features Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and clips from his TV, film and concert performances.
Premieres Tuesday, February 19 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings)
Explore the complicated history of the American South and its music through the life of country star Charley Pride. Raised in the brutally segregated Mississippi Delta, Pride’s buttery voice, talent and steely resolve led him to the Country Music Hall of Fame. A Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner, his journey shows the ways that artistic expression can triumph over prejudice and injustice. Directed by Barbara J. Hall (Patsy Cline: American Masters).
Premieres Friday, February 22 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings)
Experience the power of song in the struggle for equality through the story of feminist singer and activist Holly Near, who for the last 40 years has worked on global social justice coalition-building in the women’s and lesbian movements. Directed by Jim Brown (American Masters — The Highwaymen: Friends Til The End; American Masters – Pete Seeger: The Power of Song).
Premieres Friday, March 1 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings)
Discover the man behind the award. An immigrant who became a media mogul with an outspoken, cantankerous voice, who created two bestselling newspapers, Joseph Pulitzer championed what he regarded as the sacred role of a free press in a democracy. Directed by Oren Rudavsky (Time for School: 2003-2016).
Premieres Friday, April 12 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), pbs.org/americanmasters and PBS apps
Discover the life and work of Garry Winogrand, the epic storyteller in pictures who harnessed the serendipity of the streets to capture the American 1960s-70s. His “snapshot aesthetic” is now the universal language of contemporary image-making. Directed by Sasha Waters Freyer (Independent Lens: Razing Appalachia).
Premieres Friday, April 19 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), pbs.org/americanmasters and PBS apps
Explore four-time Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally’s six groundbreaking decades in theater, from Kiss of the Spider Woman, Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class to Ragtime, The Visit and Mothers and Sons. The film also delves into McNally’s pursuit of love and inspiration throughout his career, LGBTQ activism, triumph over addiction, and the power of the arts to transform society. Features interviews with Chita Rivera, Nathan Lane, Audra McDonald, Tyne Daly, Angela Lansbury and others. Produced, directed and written by Jeff Kaufman.
Premieres nationwide Friday, June 14 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), pbs.org/americanmasters and PBS apps
Trace the journey of one of America’s greatest choral music conductors. With no formal training, Robert Shaw was legendary for his interpretations of classical music’s choral masterpieces and inspired generations of musicians with the power of music. Directed by Pamela Roberts (American Masters – Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel) and Peter Miller (Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story).
Premieres nationwide Friday, June 21 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), pbs.org/americanmasters and PBS apps
Best known for her science fiction and “Earthsea” fantasy series, celebrated and beloved author Ursula Kroeber Le Guin (1929–2018) wrote 21 novels, 11 volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, 12 children’s books, six volumes of poetry and four of translation during her life. American Masters presents the first documentary film exploring the remarkable life and legacy of the prolific and versatile author.
Produced with Le Guin’s participation over the course of a decade, American Masters – Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin tells the intimate coming-of-age story of the Portland, Oregon, housewife and mother of three who forever transformed American literature by bringing science fiction into the literary mainstream. Through her influential work, Le Guin opened doors for generations of younger writers like Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon and David Mitchell — all of whom appear in the film — to explore fantastic elements in their writing.
The film explores the personal and professional life of the notoriously private author through revealing conversations with Le Guin as well as her family, friends and the generations of renowned writers she influenced. Visually rich, Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin illustrates the dramatic real-world settings that shaped Le Guin’s invented places using lush original animations over her own readings of her work to provide a firsthand experience of her fantastic worlds.
N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear
Premiering in November 2019
N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear examines the enigmatic life and mind of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Navarro Scott Momaday (House Made of Dawn). This documentary profile delves into the psyche behind one of Native America’s most celebrated authors of poetry and prose. Words from a Bear visually captures the essence of Momaday’s writings, relating each written line to his unique Kiowa-American experience, representing ancestry, place and oral history. Original animation, historical photos and aerial landscapes complement interviews with indigenous authors Rilla Askew and Joy Harjo; actors Robert Redford, Jeff Bridges, Beau Bridges and James Earl Jones; and Richard West, founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, to reveal Momaday’s creative core. Words from a Bear is produced by Jeffrey Palmer for Rainy Mountain Media LLC, and executive produced by Sally Jo Fifer for ITVS, Shirley K. Sneve for Vision Maker Media, and Michael Kantor for American Masters Pictures.