The National Gallery’s retrospective of documentaries by Charles Guggenheim concludes on Sunday with three films that are characteristic of the local filmmaker’s interest in the historical upheavals of mid-20th-century America: Robert Kennedy Remembered, Truman, and D-Day Remembered. The filmmaker’s first break, though, came in 1950, when he was appointed producer of Fearless Fosdick, a TV marionette show based on a character created by cartoonist Al Capp.

“I was the lowest man on the totem pole,” the gray-haired Guggenheim recalls, sitting in the screening room of the nondescript brick Georgetown building that serves as his headquarters. “So they said, ‘Why don’t you go down and see what you can do with this?’ It was the first filmed color show that NBC ever did.”

At the time, Guggenheim was a recent arrival in New York, after college and three years in the Army during World War II. He was writing for shows like Stop the Music, but his interests lay elsewhere: “I always knew I wanted to do documentaries. I was very enamored by things that Edward R. Murrow was doing, shows about real events. I wanted to do more serious things.”

The filmmaker soon found a suitably serious sponsor, the Ford Foundation, which was looking to fund a show that dealt with community issues. “The only public television station at that time was out in Iowa, owned by Iowa State University,” says the Midwest native, whose blue polo shirt bears the logo of his Cincinnati alma mater, Walnut Hills High School. “So that’s where I went.”

Guggenheim produced televised town meetings on issues such as school consolidation, and then worked as the station manager at a new public TV station in St. Louis. “After I got fired from that, I stayed on in St. Louis and started my own business.” He made films for Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaign and George McGovern’s first campaign for the Senate. “That’s when political filmmaking started,” he says, “—with us.

“I was doing interesting things there, but no one took you too seriously,” he remembers. “The most important jobs were coming from the East Coast, the projects that I was interested in. No one wanted to go out to St. Louis to hire a documentary producer, although we were making some kind of reputation for ourselves.”

So Guggenheim moved to Washington—”the best thing we ever did. We were taken more seriously, and [we had access to] the resources here—the National Archives, the Library of Congress—and the people here.”

Guggenheim and his daughter Grace, who now serves as his producer, will discuss their work Sept. 30 at a Smithsonian Resident Associates presentation. Their discussion will emphasize four films, Robert Kennedy Remembered, Nine From Little Rock, The Johnstown Flood, and A Time for Justice. These movies have three things in common: They all won Oscars, they all deal with the sort of political and historical issues that have become Guggenheim Productions’ speciality, and none of them were Guggenheim’s idea.

“The number of projects that we think up ourselves and get funded are relatively small,” the filmmaker admits. “I’d say less than 20 percent. There are two great advantages to that: You do things you never would do, and they turn out to be much more interesting than you think they are. And they’re funded. So you don’t spend your time, like a lot of people have to do, spending years getting it funded.

“If you wanted to compare it to being an architect, it’s almost the same,” he suggests. “Architects don’t decide what buildings they’re going to build. Of course, you don’t have to build it, if you don’t like what they want to build. I’ve gotten very good commissions, and some of most interesting and successful films have not been my idea.”

Although Guggenheim says he’s worked for people he’s disliked, on balance, “I’ve had wonderful clients. As you get older, people treat you with more respect. And the great thing about winning an award, whether the picture was good or not, is that the next guy takes you more seriously. So what’s happened is that we have some kind of track record, so the next client becomes more intimidated. In recent years, more of my clients have deferred to me than when I was younger.”

Guggenheim tells his fledgling associates, “We are not making movies for the client. If you have something to say, they’ll recognize it. And if you don’t have something to say, and they discover you don’t have something to say, that’s when they’ll take over.”

The director is currently working on a film about industrialist Norton Simon and his art collection, which became the basis for the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. “The person who hired us was Jennifer Jones, the movie star, who was his wife. She gets a theatrical lawyer in Hollywood to write up the contract. It’s that thick, because it’s coming from a Hollywood lawyer. What you can do, what you can’t do, what you should do. The people who are in charge are all over you. Then you screen the picture for them. They see it, and they’re totally at your command.

“I don’t mean to pretend that it always goes that way,” he adds. “I can give you a couple examples where we didn’t do a very good job. Once you don’t do a good job, you’ve lost control. That’s what you don’t want ever to happen.”

Sometimes, of course, the client’s unwelcome directives work out for the best. That was the case when Ethel Kennedy, who hired Guggenheim to make Robert Kennedy Remembered, requested that he use Richard Burton as the narrator. The filmmaker didn’t like the idea. “I thought, Kennedy is a quintessential American. Why have this Welsh voice come over this American film?”

Guggenheim figured that logistics would rule out the actor. “The film was done very fast….We had nine weeks….

I figure, well, where is [Burton]? I’ve got to get this thing done. I need to record him in the next five days.

“They say he’s coming in on the Queen Mary tomorrow, with his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, and he’ll be at his lawyer’s house on Long Island. So I go to the house, and [Burton] has two or three Bloody Marys. And he reads it right through. Once. There was nothing you could say. You just knew it was right. His wife suggested three changes, and I guess I suggested one. He pronounced Indiana very peculiarly. So he did that over. It was the greatest performance I ever saw. It was so good, it transcended where it came from.”

Although Guggenheim has made several films about the civil-rights movement and broader issues of racial and religious tolerance in America, he says the subject that touches him most personally is World War II. “D-Day meant very much to me. It was a movie where I was probably more emotionally involved than any movie I’ve worked on in years. Because I saw myself in those pictures. I knew how those guys felt.”

Guggenheim was in Indiana when Allied troops landed in Normandy. “I was injured in training and was hospitalized in August 1944,” he says. “In September, my division went overseas and went into the line in Belgium on Dec. 8th. On Dec. 14th, they were no longer a division. They were destroyed.

“It’s come back to me very forcefully in recent years,” Guggenheim says. “I collect pictures of friends of mine who were killed. I have a compulsion to do that now.”

Guggenheim doesn’t use talking-head interviews very often, because he thinks they disrupt the flow of the story he’s trying to tell. He feels particularly strongly that he was right not to show on screen the many D-Day veterans whose reminiscences are heard in D-Day Remembered. “D-Day took place 50 years ago,” he says. “This was a story of young men, 19, 20, 21 years old. I didn’t want to see that young guy, now 74 years old, sitting there with a potbelly. Then the whole thing is fucked up. You’ve lost the scene. But the voices are so wonderful. And they don’t take you out of 50 years ago.”

The filmmaker says he can’t bring himself to see Saving Private Ryan. “I got three letters from people saying, ‘I bet Spielberg saw your film.’ Well, my film’s no secret. What’s in it is no secret. Our film is probably closest to the truth about what happened on D-Day, until maybe his.”

Although Guggenheim’s films touch on many subjects and periods, the events of 1940-1965 still dominate his work. “My point of view was formed in that period of time,” he says. “It was indelible, what happened then. Those are the kind of films you want to do.” He chuckles. “There’s nothing more satisfying than reliving your past.”

—Mark Jenkins