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Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor will be the most recognizable figures in “The Roosevelts: An Intimate Portrait” as it airs on PBS this week, but viewers who have spent time in Chapel Hill may spot another familiar face.

William Leuchtenburg, William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of History at Carolina, is interviewed in the new Ken Burns film, which debuted nationally Sunday night. As a leading scholar on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Leuchtenburg was glad to see the family’s history in the spotlight.

“This had never been done before,” Leuchtenburg said.  “Bringing together Theodore and Franklin and Eleanor gives a kind of dimension to it of a great novel that crosses generations, more than 60 years of the 20th century.”

“The Roosevelts: An Intimate Portrait” delves into the lives and legacies of the Roosevelts over the course of seven different two-hour installments. Leuchtenburg is featured most prominently in the sections about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which are scheduled to air mid-week. The retired professor, who taught at Carolina for more than 20 years, traveled to New Hampshire, where Burns lives, to do the interview.

“We talked about the impact of the Great Depression,” Leuchtenburg said, “as well as the 1936 campaign and the popular outpouring of approval for [Roosevelt], of enthusiasm and the Supreme Court packing fight of 1937.”

This is the second time Leuchtenburg has been interviewed on-camera in one of Burns’ films. He also appeared in “Prohibition”in 2011, one of several installments in a relationship between filmmaker and historian that goes back more than 30 years.  Leuchtenburg has been a consultant to Burns on many of his other projects, including “Huey Long,” “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” and “The Dust Bowl.”  

Leuchtenburg has been fascinated with Franklin Roosevelt in particular since he listened to the 32nd President’s inauguration as a boy in 1933.  Though the Roosevelts may not get the same level of attention as the Kennedys or other presidential families, the professor said their accomplishments are more important.

“If you’re thinking about the history of the 20th century, which is to say about half the history of the American republic, there are no political figures who loom as large, who’ve had as great an influence,” Leuchtenburg said.

“I think people are going to be fascinated by this program.  At the end of 14 hours, people are going to have a view not just of history, but of America today that they’ve never had before.”

By Rob Holliday, Office of Communications and Public Affairs

Published September 15, 2014