Grant on Television

Our series on Grant in the media concludes with a look at Grant on television, where his character has made appearances in various series and documentaries going back four decades.

It is likely that the first depictions of Grant on the small screen came when motion pictures featuring him as a character were aired as programming in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Perhaps the first depiction of Grant created originally for the small screen was in a 1953 episode of the CBS anthology series "You Are There." The episode was called "Grant and Lee at Appomattox." The series, hosted by Walter Cronkite, was a carryover from radio. (Indeed, the Appomattox television episode appears to have been a remake of a radio version of the subject aired by CBS in 1948). The episode was an auspicious start for the depiction of Grant on television.

"You Are There" depicted historical events dramatically in a relatively realistic manner, as if a camera crew were on site. Grant was played by Roy Engel, who would return to the role in television's "Wild Wild West" in the 1960s, as noted later in this article.

The quality of the "You Are There" presentation of Grant is indicative of the prevalent anthology show format of the era - in which different topics and casts were presented each week, as opposed to the more profitable and more easily sponsored recurring series formats, like sitcoms, that soon supplanted it in the medium. Broadcast historians typically equate those anthologies with the so-called Golden Age of Television

As television programming changed, so too did most of the depictions of one of the greatest Americans in U.S. history. In fact, television, as is true of Hollywood, has been generally uninterested in Grant's meaning or career, so when his character makes an appearance, it is often tangentially, inaccurately or negatively.

One common paradigm has Grant as a supporting character in a fictional tale.
For example, at the end of an episode of "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color" entitled "Johnny Shiloh, Drummer Boy of Chattanooga" (1963), Grant was given a cameo for the purpose of congratulating the protagonist, a teenage soldier. Wearing an atypically resplendent uniform, the Grant character was innocuously pompous. Disney avoided the Hollywood stereotype, but it also seems to have avoided any historical research.

From Histeria (1998)

Another paradigm for TV depictions of Grant is to have a main theme that is a separate phenomenon that existed during Grant's presidency: the old West, or at least the popular conception of the old West.

The 1965 TV western, "Branded," featured as its main character Jason McCord (Chuck Connors), a brave and proud man suffering from slanderous and inaccurate perceptions of him. This is somewhat ironic, because President Grant would be on the regular supporting characters in the series, and he was depicted by William Bryant along the lines of the course, cigar-chomping Hollywood stereotype - with an added touch of underhandedness.

In one episode, Grant send McCord west to stop a gold theft by infiltrating a gang of Mexican bandits, and in another, he is sent to spy on General George A. Custer, who is planning to incite an attack on Indians that would politically damage Grant. In other episodes McCord saves Grant from an assassination attempt and rescues him from a kidnapping.

A scene from Wild Wild West (1965-1969) featuring Grant

Grant, played again by Roy Engel, who had essayed him in "You Are There," was a recurring character in a program produced from 1965 to 1969, "Wild Wild West." Incidentally, the show, along with its Grant character, made the transition to the silver screen in 1999. In the original series, the protagonists were two secret agents sent by Grant out west, where they undertook various missions, including one to halt the activities of a Mexican revolutionary and another to thwart an assassination attempt on Grant. In one episode, a German baron tries to blackmail Grant by means of a doctored "Kinetoscope" (a primitive movie actually not yet invented in Grant's time) that shows him signing a deal with corrupt officials of a foreign power, but the plot is thwarted.

The Grant of the series has a persona and a role strikingly similar to that in "Branded." The shows did share at least two writers (Ken Pettus and William Marks), which may help to account for this.

And of course, negative depictions have occurred. One example came in "My World and Welcome to It" (1969), an Emmy-winning series loosely based on the works of James Thurber. One episode was inspired by Thurber's cruel short story, "If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox." There, a father who is trying to persuade his daughter that history is not dull reenacted an alternate version of the surrender at Appomattox in which a totally unkempt Grant was so inebriated that he accidentally surrendered to Robert E. Lee. This over-the-top depiction was a low pointing Grant's television career.

Dennis Lipscomb as Ulysses and Kathleen Lloyd as Julia
Grant in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1995)

In the realm of non-fiction, Grant unquestionably has enjoyed a renaissance in more recent decades - for reasons to be described in a moment. Even so, this did not resonate in popular television for the most part. Grant's dramatic appearances have tended to be brief, sporadic, and no more accurate than before, as seen in the following programs:
  • "Legend" (1993): U.S. Grant, depicted as a pompous snob, and his wife, Julia, depicted as a clichéd nag, are seen being jostled about in trains, on horses and even in a hot air balloon as the audience waits for "The Legend" (Richard Dean Anderson) to tear himself away from silly, anachronistic gags to save the couple from Julia's ex-boyfriend.
  • "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" (1995): The Julia-as-nag depiction is taken up a notch as the first lady known in her time to be charming and affable appears mean enough to make Mary Lincoln blush. Her husband is portrayed sympathetically, but out of historical character, as he has an emotional breakdown at a reception after recalling his Civil War days.
  • "The Critic" (1995) (animated): Two characters visit Grant's Tomb, only to have a Dracula-accented Grant pop out of his sarcophagus and ask who has awakened him from his slumber.
  • "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer" (1998): Grant tries to sober up but instead has wild hallucinations where he is challenging the Devil to a bowling match. Never aired (along with other episodes of this universally panned series) was another episode in which Confederates kidnap Mary Lincoln, so Grant kidnaps Robert E. Lee's wife and tries to seduce her.
  • "Histeria" (1998): A Johnny Carson-ish Abraham Lincoln, a psychopathic arsonist William T. Sherman, and a flirtatious Grant appear on "Family Feud" challenging Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis.
  • "The Tempest" (1998): The character of Grant makes an appearance in this adaptation of the Shakespeare classic set in the south.

Over-the-top fiction has only been part of the Grant television story during the past 20 years or so: Grant also appeared in a number of documentaries spurred, in large part, by the dramatic rise in interest in the Civil War era that resulted from Ken Burns' 1990 documentary, "The Civil War." The PBS program demonstrated the continuing potential of television to transcend its usual mediocrity and convey important messages. The documentary was an interesting mix of traditional appraisals of the war, which tended to lionize southern military figures, and a new focus on slavery and emancipation. Grant did not fare too poorly overall. But few seemed to notice that the series ended with three reverent minutes devoted to Lee's five remaining years after the war, while Grant's 20 years (including eight in the White House) were given a scant two minutes of ambivalent commentary.

In 1998 "Lincoln" featured the voice of Oscar-winning actor Rod Steiger as Grant in this documentary largely told, as in Burns' production, through narration, diaries and speeches. A "Ulysses S. Grant" installment of the "American Experience" series appeared in 2002; and retired General Norman Schwarzkopf lent his voice as Grant in an episode of "The American President" that same year.

Dramatic depictions continue to appear. In a bit of interesting casting, Robin Williams portrayed Grant in "A War to End Slavery" (2003), part of a star-studded documentary mini-series called "Freedom: A History of Us."

Three years later, Grant appeared in "No Retreat from Destiny: The Battle That Rescued Washington." Its topical tagline was "An Unpopular War. An Embattled President. An Election Year."

Grant pops out of his sarcophagus
(complete with cigar) in The Critic (1995)

In 2007 Grant was portrayed in two television productions. First, actor Harry Bulkeley, who had essayed Grant's voice for the "American Experience" program in 2002, returned to the role, this time appearing in character as well, in the docudrama "Sherman's March."

And second, the general appeared in "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" (2007) an HBO mini-series that was nominated for three Golden Globe awards. This time, the actor was former U.S. Senator Fred Dalton Thompson. Thompson took the role (and returned to the popular "Law & Order" series) after leaving the Senate and before re-entering the political arena for his abortive try for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.

Aside from the documentaries, the vast majority of depictions of Grant on television reflect little that can be called historically accurate other than the beard and cigar.

Of course, such shows do not make historical accuracy a priority, and at times they simply have innocuous fun with history. But TV and the movies do reflect and fuel popular images - which may help explain why many people can recite no "fact" about Grant other than the myth that he was a drunkard. The historical Grant's persona combined gentleness and determination, taciturnity and honesty. In the words of his wartime adversary General James Longstreet, "the biggest part of him was his heart." But this is the quality most ignored in common depictions of Grant in the ubiquitous mass media of television.

See the previous article


See this informative Internet Movie Database list of Grant motion picture and television appearances:


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