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Local theater veteran remembers Ken Burns

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Ken Burns made his epic documentary series “The Civil War” 25 years ago using the technology of the time: film and analog audio.

Starting today, a digitized version of the series will air on PBS stations. The restoration involved transforming 16mm film negatives and magnetic audio tapes into high-resolution, repairing damage, correcting color and arresting deterioration.

The results will air over five nights, starting at 9 p.m. today. The series originally drew more than 40 million viewers and won more than 40 major awards. Part of the lure was the stellar cast of voices: Jeremy Irons, Julie Harris (Mary Boykin Chesnut), Jason Robards (Ulysses S. Grant), Morgan Freeman (Frederick Douglass), Garrison Keillor (Walt Whitman), Paul Roebling (Joshua L. Chamberlain), Sam Waterston (Abraham Lincoln), Arthur Miller (William T. Sherman), David McCullough (narrator) and many more.

The man who voiced the critical role of Robert E. Lee now lives in Mount Pleasant. He just received a card from Burns wishing him a happy 80th birthday. And he spoke with The Post and Courier about his experience 25 years ago.

George Black is an actor, director, theater impresario and teacher who spent a career divided between community and professional theater and academia. A quarter century ago, he was teaching at the University of Virginia and working at the Heritage Repertory Theater in Charlottesville when he got a call from Stephen Ives, a co-producer of “The Civil War.” Ives and his colleagues wanted Black to help audition actors.

“I said, ‘Sure,’ ” Black said.

Ives and Ken Burns’ brother, Ric, came to Charlottesville and heard several actors Black had rounded up. On the last night of their visit, Ken joined the group, and over dinner they talked about the project. There was only one major role left to cast, Robert E. Lee.

Ken Burns said he was going to Los Angeles to meet prospective Confederate generals but wondered if Black might be interested in the part.

“Sure!” came the reply. Black has a distinguished baritone voice with a hint of the South in it.

The team recorded Black reading from the script. Burns went to L.A., then returned. Black recorded more, this time in New York City. Then he got a phone call. It’s a done deal, Burns told him. You got the part.

Visiting Burns’ little office on 8th Avenue in New York City, Black was astonished by the piles of 16mm film cans, the reams of paper, scrambling interns, books and miscellany strewn everywhere.

He spent two days in the studio reading the script into a microphone, then returned for some re-dos a little later.

When the film was finished, Black attempted to pay Burns a visit at his New Hampshire home, but Burns wasn’t there. He was traveling to TV stations, trying to convince them to broadcast a long, multiday historical documentary mostly in black-and-white with no live action.

“It was not an easy sell,” Black said.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.

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