John Gardner: Uncommon American Documentary

"Conversations With and About Mike"\

How to Order A Copy of John Gardner: Uncommon American
You can order the film by calling:
GPN Instructional Video at (800) 228-4630. (link leads outside of PBS’ Web site)

The Making of the Film

“John Gardner: Uncommon American” was born when one of the beneficiaries of John Gardner’s entrepreneurial actions started to explore the man and his influence. Rick Stamberger had served as a White House Fellow in 1984-1985 and went on to a successful career in the private sector. After reading Gardner’s books and then meeting him, he decided to bring his story to the world. “John Gardner: Uncommon American” is the first film produced by the Twenty-First Century Initiative, a non-profit organization founded by Rick in 1998 to tell the stories of men and women who have shaped the society in which we live.

To help him make the film, Rick enlisted the help of Tom Simon of Working Dog Productions, a leader in documentary films for television. As a filmmaker, executive producer and television executive, Tom has been responsible for some of the world’s top-rated documentary programs during the past twenty years. For 10 years, Tom served as vice-president of programming and production, and executive producer of the National Geographic Specials on PBS and National Geographic Explorer on TBS. Prior to joining National Geographic, he was Senior Producer of Smithsonian World on PBS.

Below, Rick and Tom talk about the making of the film.


Q: When did you first hear about John Gardner?
Rick Stamberger: I probably heard of John Gardner first in the early 80s. I served as a White House Fellow in 1984-1985, and John Gardner was the person responsible for suggesting to President Johnson that he create such a program. However, I didn’t read any of Gardner’s materials until several years later when I read the first chapters of On Leadership and a copy of Self Renewal. Self Renewal left a significant, though latent, impact on me; it was the only book that I dated on the inside cover as to when I read it and where I was at the time.

Q: Why did you undertake this project?
Stamberger: I first met John Gardner on April 15, 1999. Quite simply, it was one of the most interesting conversations I’d had in many years, and John Gardner was one of the most interesting human beings I had ever met. As I was working on another project, Gardner’s name kept reappearing. Late one evening, while reading Alvin Toeffler’s, Future Shock, I came across John Gardner. Toeffler describes Gardner as the “manager of the future” — in 1966! It dawned on me that nobody had produced a film conversation with Gardner, and I thought that such a project made a lot of sense.

Q: What was the reaction you got from people when you told them you were doing a documentary about Gardner?
Stamberger: The response by the people who knew of or knew John Gardner was both extremely positive and “why hasn’t that been done already?” For the people who did not know whether John Gardner was a deceased fiction writer, a tennis coach, or the former secretary of HEW, it took a bit more explanation.

Q: Then what did you do? How did you make the film?
Stamberger: The first step in producing the documentary was to create the team. I asked Tom Simon, a noted and talented producer, if he would be interested in producing and directing the documentary. After he signed on, we hired an initial researcher and writer and created a treatment for the film. This brief document outlined the story and provided a list of likely subjects for interview. I met with Gardner on numerous occasions, and we had a team of researchers reviewing documents at Stanford, at Carnegie Corporation, and in Washington to develop a chronological timeline of his efforts and achievements. We then developed an interview list and developed a shooting schedule for the documentary. Because of John’s health, we accelerated the shooting of interviews with him.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned during the filming about Gardner?
Stamberger: John Gardner surprises me on a daily basis. After showing him the finished product, I learned from his assistant that in 1957, he had gotten the board of directors of Carnegie Corporation to divest its endowment of tobacco stocks — a good 30 years before any other company or organization in the United States! Perhaps the greatest surprise was the depth of the man. Like many Americans, I had pigeonholed John Gardner into a profile defined by Common Cause. His experience in civil rights and in healthcare and education — not to mention his instrumental role in the creation of public television — disabused me of that limited notion.

Q: What do you hope that viewers will take away from the film? At the end of my first meeting with John, I asked him what he thought his legacy was. He replied that his greatest legacy is that there is not another John Gardner out there, but thousands of John Gardners — all working to improve quality of life in this society. I hope that this story inspires another person or thousand people or ten thousand people to take action in their communities, to live their lives differently, to effect change.


Q: When did you first hear about John Gardner?
Tom Simon: Probably during Watergate. My father was also a member of Common Cause so I heard about him through that.

Q: Why did you undertake this project?
Simon: The more I learned about John, the more intrigued I became with doing a film about his life, times, and living legacy. I should add that this project would not have happened without the vision and hard work of Rick Stamberger. He came up with the initial idea and the funding to make it possible. But he was also a true editorial collaborator during the making of the program –he had great suggestions on everything from interviewees to the thematic approach –and he was a pleasure to work with.

Q: How was the film made?
Simon: We did a lot of R&D before the project was put in production. My team did not meet Gardner first, although Rick Stamberger, the exec producer did. We did weeks of standard biographical/historical research first, then conducted dozen of phone interviews with potential interviewees.

Our first shoot was actually done before the project was okayed for production. That was at the Annual White House Fellows conference in DC where John was being honored. There, we interviewed a number of former fellows, including Colin Powell and did a brief interview with John, which was my first meeting with him.

Q: Technically, how was it done?
Simon: We shot on Beta SP and edited on an AVid.

Q: I am sure that in all your projects as a documentary filmmaker you learn a lot. But what were the most important things you learned during the filming of “Uncommon American?”
Simon: I learned a lot about maintaining the courage of your convictions, about how important a keen understanding of human nature can be in navigating political situations, and I marveled at the strength of John and Aida’s relationship.

Q: What do you hope that viewers will take away from the film?
Simon: I hope they’ll take away an understanding of the power of one individual to effect change. John certainly didn’t do it all himself but he was– and is–a potent catalyst and inspiration for change. The ripples of his actions continue to spread across the American landscape.



Editor’s Note: The Appendix for “Conversations With and About Mike” contains transcripts for the recorded audio and video clips. To view the Audio Transcripts go to this page >