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1986: 'American Masters' Premieres on PBS
June 23, 2020  | By David Bianculli  | 841 comments

On this day in 1986, PBS premiered an arts documentary series that is still going strong: American Masters, one of the most durable and worthwhile jewels in public television’s crown.

American Masters premiered with a behind-the-scenes look at a Broadway hit from the year before: Dustin Hoffman’s riveting portrayal of Willy Loman in a revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Called Private Conversations: On the Set of ‘Death of a Salesman,’ this inaugural presentation of American Masters followed Hoffman and company during the rehearsal process, at a time when the 45-year-old actor was still struggling with what he considered the best approach to portray the beleaguered, 60-year-old Willy Loman. Arthur Miller also was interviewed, and the actors shadowed in rehearsal, in that wonderful production, also included John Malkovich, Kate Reid, Charles Durning and Stephen Lang.

Over the years, American Masters has profiled and examined artists in a wide array of creative fields, including author Louisa May Alcott, filmmaker Woody Allen, musician Louis Armstrong, nature artist John James Audubon, and photographer Richard Avedon — and those are just some of the As.

Other productions include stellar studies of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, George Balanchine, Buster Keaton, Walter Cronkite, Ralph Ellison, Ray Charles, Eugene O’Neill, Albert Einstein, Philip Glass, I.M. Pei, Harper Lee, Gore Vidal, Edward R. Murrow, Charles Schulz, Rod Serling, and Mel Brooks.
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