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Ken Burns on 'The Dust Bowl,' Plus a Few Television Pioneers
July 23, 2012  | By Bill Brioux
BEVERLY HILLS, CA—Ken Burns says no, The Dust Bowl is not the thing he uses to cut his hair.

The ever articulate documentary film maker (The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz) has always sported a Beatles 'do, circa 1965.  But The Dust Bowl is apparently not how he gets his unique, circular bowl haircut. It's the title of an excellent new four-hour documentary he's made with Dayton Duncan on the so-called "Dirty Thirties."

The two sat on a panel Sunday at PBS's press tour session along with a survivor from the storms, Cal Crabill, who grew up on a farm in Holly, Colorado. As a youngster, he nearly got swallowed up in dust as he went out to fetch the cows. "We went from childhood to adulthood, we didn't have teenage years," said Crabill, a lively and entertaining fellow.

The Dust Storm
, which will air November 18 and 19, features some astounding footage of hundreds of rabbits scampering across the dusty farm fields. Coyotes had been killed off, and without their natural predators, rabbits were, well, breeding like rabbits. Burns says he had to cut some of the more gruesome footage of farmers rounding up rabbits by the dozens and hammering them to death. Eh, what's up, doc?

Also Sunday at press tour: Cloris Leachman was up to her old tricks at the Pioneers of Television panel. The Raising Hope star and eight time Emmy-winner can still stand on her head and steal a session. Leachman does this now by playing dotty, this time mooning over an uncomfortable Bryan Brown. The Australian actor was there along with his old Thorn Birds pals Rachel Ward (also Brown's wife) and Richard Chamberlain. Lou Gossett Jr. and Michele Lee rounded out the panel.

"How come I didn't get Louis Gossett beside me?" complained Brown as Leachman kept pawing at him and doing shtick.

Chamberlain got so fed up he left, using some excuse that he had a play to do (at the same time rubbing it in that he was still working). Loopy Leachman just kept fidgeting and upstaging.

These Pioneers sessions have become less fun and unique ever since most press tour sessions feature actors from the '50s, '60s and '70s such as Larry Hagman and Betty White.

This one was even less fun as it somehow morphed into an awkward and extended discussion about how bad reviews from the Thorn Birds pretty much killed Ward's acting career. Now there's a party starter! Ward went on and on about how critics savaged her acting on the early '80s miniseries and how she all but retired from acting after that. "When I got slaughtered, I kind of took it to heart. I never got my confidence back," she said.

You could hear a pin drop in the place. Even Leachman stopped monkeying around for 30 seconds. Ward kinda blamed Canadian-born Thorn Birds director Daryl Duke, too, suggesting he just didn't offer much support.

Really though, with that hair and that skin and those eyes, all Ward had to do in that miniseries was stand there and let Chamberlain's Father Ralph paw at her like Cloris Leachman pawed Bryan Brown. Besides, as Leachman kindly pointed out, "those critics are probably all dead by now."

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