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HBO’s ‘John Adams’ Takes Fresh Look at Founding Father

A new HBO miniseries based on a Pulitzer-Prize winning biography by David McCullough aims to present an authentic portrayal of the life and times of America's second president, John Adams. McCullough and actor Paul Giamatti, who plays Adams in the series, discuss the production.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    And finally tonight, the life of a founding father comes to life on television. Jeffrey Brown has our Media Unit report.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Perhaps the least known and honored of the nation's founders gets the star treatment in a new seven-part series on HBO beginning Sunday.

    John Adams of Massachusetts was a lawyer, a revolutionary, diplomat, the country's first vice president and second president.

    He was, it's said, vain, irritable, funny, hugely stubborn, brave and brilliant. And he carried on a lifelong love affair, captured in letters, with his equally remarkable wife, Abigail.

    Here's a brief scene in which Adams argues for declaring independence from Britain.

    PAUL GIAMATTI, Actor, "John Adams": I see hope. I see a new nation ready to take its place in the world, not an empire, but a republic, and a republic of laws, not men.

    Gentlemen, we are in the very midst of revolution, the most complete, unexpected and remarkable of any in the history of the world. How few of the human race have ever had an opportunity of choosing a system of government for themselves?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Paul Giamatti plays John Adams and joins us now. He's well-known for many screen roles, including "Sideways," "Cinderella Man," and "American Splendor."

    Also with us is the historian who played a major part in bringing John Adams before the public. David McCullough's 2001 biography won the Pulitzer Prize and is the basis for the new series.

    Well, Paul Giamatti, let me ask you, as the one coming to John Adams anew, or perhaps for the first time, what struck you most about him? What was the key to capturing him?

  • PAUL GIAMATTI:

    Well, as you say, it was all fairly new to me. I knew shamefully little about him. I suppose, bearing in mind his essential humanity — I mean, he seemed to be less good at shaping a persona for himself than, say, Jefferson or Washington or having other people do it for him, so he was a very openly human man.

    And he was an essentially decent guy. So underneath all the pugnaciousness and the arrogance and the vanity, there had to be an essential decency and kindness underneath it. So I just had to bear that in mind all the time and not get too carried away with the argumentative side of the man, I suppose.