Passion returns an Emmy

March 16, 2009|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,

The shiny new Emmy award on the top shelf in Leo Eaton's Carroll County home office stands out among other relics of a career in entertainment that spans nearly five decades.

But when asked to talk about winning television's highest honor, the London-born independent film producer glances at the Emmy with a look that says, "Oh, that old thing?"

"I've won other awards that I'm prouder of," said Eaton, 63, a producer whose work has taken him to more than 30 countries and covered scores of topics, from historical figures to rodeo competitors to astronauts. It should come as no surprise, then, that a current project involves drawing parallels between gang violence in Baltimore and the death of a founding father.

Eaton won the Emmy as producer for the 11-part series America at a Crossroads, which aired on PBS in 2007. The series examined the nation's challenges in confronting terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The producer garnered the award for the episode "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience," which featured firsthand accounts from U.S. troops. The film won in the category Outstanding Informational Programming - Long Form.

Eaton is known for offering viewers an imaginative, sometimes unconventional way of examining topics. The former vice president of national/international production at Maryland Public Television and co-creator of the children's nature program Zoboomafoo, Eaton relishes work that allows him to indulge his talents and passions.

"Documentaries are special because with every project you make you're being invited into a totally different world that you probably knew nothing about," he said.

With America at a Crossroads, Eaton says, he oversaw production but was not particularly involved with the details. So when "Operation Homecoming" was honored at the 29th annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards in September in New York City, Eaton didn't attend the ceremony.

He recently received the honor via UPS.

"I'm glad I won it, but I can't clutch the thing and say, 'This is my work,' " Eaton said. "I was the series producer, which means that ultimately all of the other producers have to satisfy me in terms of what I wanted and what PBS wanted."

Eaton said he got involved with America at a Crossroads because "it was a great series, a huge challenge."

"My whole attitude about making films is that I make films that interest me," Eaton said. "If someone comes to me with something, I can usually find something that appeals to me. If nothing appeals to me, then I won't take it on - unless I'm very, very hungry."

Lately he's been excited about direct involvement in many projects that have yet to hit the screen. They include a documentary on Alexander Hamilton that prompted a visit to Maryland Shock Trauma Center and interviews with former Baltimore-area gang members.

Tying gangs and Shock Trauma to the fatal shooting of one of the nation's founding fathers is part of his work as a producer for Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton, a 90-minute special that examines Hamilton's life and character.

The show is a follow-up to the acclaimed 2002 PBS special Rediscovering George Washington, which took an unconventional look at the first president. Both shows are the work of Manifold Productions in Chevy Chase.

Shooting on the Hamilton series ended this month with interviews with Rupert Murdoch, owner of the New York Post, which Hamilton founded. Editing has begun, and the production is expected to be completed in the fall. It is expected to air next year on PBS.

Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton attempts to put Hamilton's death - from a gunshot wound suffered in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr - in modern context.

At Shock Trauma, Easton asked doctors who routinely treat gunshot victims whether they could have saved Hamilton, who died a day after being shot.

And what does Hamilton's death have to do with former members of some of Baltimore's street gangs?

"Who nowadays kills people for honor? Gang members," Eaton said. "We asked them how they felt about it and whether it made sense to them. We try to put a sense of making [the documentary] relevant to the present. It's a very different way of doing film."

Eaton began making films at age 14, and those who have worked with him say he brings an infectious passion for filmmaking to the set. He is routinely involved with almost every aspect of production, down to the menial tasks.

"One of the good things about Leo is that he has lots of great ideas - he's very, very creative and very imaginative," said Michael Pack, president of Manifold Productions, who also toured Shock Trauma for the Hamilton documentary.

"As executive producer he's not on the set all the time, but he's always great to have on the set because he does everything," Pack said. "He'll move boxes and equipment along with coming up with new scene ideas."

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