Ken Burns Answers the Orion Questionnaire

In which we get to know our favorite writers better by exploring the sacred and mundane.

Acclaimed historical documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has been making lauded films and series for almost fifty years. From The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, to The Vietnam War, The National Parks, and his new release The American Buffalo, his vast, Oscar nominated, Emmy and Grammy winning body of work is unparalleled. But did you know he also has a penchant for lilacs, lemons, and roasted chicken?


You found a penny. Do you pick it up?
It depends.


What is your most treasured comfort meal?
Roasted chicken.


What is a species you feel is frequently misunderstood?


My favorite tree in the world is _____.


Nature would be better without _____.

What is something you’re looking forward to?
This afternoon.


Do you like scary movies?
No, they scare me.


If you could, regardless of the local climate, reach out of your kitchen window a pluck a fruit from a tree, bush, or plant, what would it be?
A lemon.


If you could make pancakes with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
My youngest daughter.


Would you rather be lost in space or lost at sea?
At sea.


What are some of your favorite words?
Flabbergast, slow, Chester.


Who are some of your heroes or heroines, real or fictional?
Louis Armstrong, Abraham Lincoln, and Hagbard Celine (the central protagonist in the Illuminatus trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson).


Who is a character from literature or film with whom you intensely identify?
Jake Gittes. (Jack Nicholson’s character in Chinatown.)


You have twenty-four hours suspended from time. Where and how do you spend them?
In Yosemite.


It’s six o’clock on a summer Saturday, you’re sitting with your feet in a cool creek and someone hands you the perfect beverage. What is it?


Are you optimistic about the future?
Yes, pretty much, but ask me after the next presidential election. . . .


What is a smell that makes you stop in your tracks?


Where did you grow up?
I haven’t yet, but I tried in Newark, Delaware, and Ann Arbor, Michigan.


Are you the same person you were as a child?
Pretty much.


What song or album reminds you of high school?
Abbey Road.


You are in a situation where you simply must sing karaoke. What’s your song?
“I Still Miss Someone,” by Johnny Cash.


If you could live anywhere, where would it be?
Here! (In Walpole, New Hampshire.)


You’re in a deserted island situation for an unknown period of time. You get three items and one book. What do you bring?
A large supply of food and water, handcranked radio, How To Build a Boat.


What would you like to be most remembered for? 
As the oldest documentary filmmaker ever.


What flower would you want pinned to your breast after you die?


If you could come back as any organism, who or what would you be? 

A bear.



Ken’s newest film, The American Buffalo, is out on PBS this October.

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Ken Burns has been making documentary films for almost fifty years. Since the Academy Award nominated Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, Ken has gone on to direct and produce some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made, including The Civil War; Baseball; Jazz; The War; The National Parks: America’s Best Idea; Prohibition; The Roosevelts: An Intimate History; The Vietnam War; Country Music; and, most recently, The U.S. and the Holocaust. Future film projects include The American Buffalo, Leonardo da Vinci, The American Revolution, Emancipation to Exodus, and LBJ & the Great Society, among others. Ken’s films have been honored with dozens of major awards, including sixteen Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards and two Oscar nominations. In September of 2008, at the News & Documentary Emmy Awards, Ken was honored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In November of 2022, Ken was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.