Historic business clashes are vividly recalled in History’s eight-hour series “The Innovators: The Men Who Built America,” centering on the industry pioneers who influenced the country’s growth, from the end of the Civil War to the start of the first World War.
The intrigue and the drama were inspired by historical records, according to American historian HW Brands and the series’ executive producer Russ McCarroll, who expounded on the ambitious project during a phone interview.
“From 1865 to 1914, the American economy, society, and politics changed probably more than at any other period in comparable length,” Brands said. “So if you had visited America in a time machine in 1865, it would’ve looked like an entirely different place. People did things very differently! If you could then return to 1914, the country would look recognizably modern, and the changes that occurred were in very large part the work of the men who were featured in the series, and the other individuals whom they worked with.”
Between dramatizations of pivotal moments, “Innovators” features present-day industry luminaries such as Donald Trump and Steve Wozniak, who offer insightful commentaries on the strategies of the pioneers.
McCarroll elaborated: “We wanted to give a contemporary feel to it. We wanted to illustrate how much of what happened also informed what was going on in the current economic situation here in the United States. So we decided that the people who could communicate that best would be some of the CEOs and the drivers of the current economy. What we found out was that Mr. Trump and a lot of the other CEOs had done a lot of reading about John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, and those kinds of people.”
McCarroll revealed that casting actors for the roles of historic innovators Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie was a long process. “We’ve spent a long time casting and looking for fresh new faces, people who haven’t really been seen on television here in the United States,” he said. “We were really looking for actors who looked different from each other, [but] also looked like the guys that we were featuring. These guys really impressed us with their poise and their ability to feel very natural with the roles they were playing!”
The cutthroat practices and tensions between the innovators and their competitors during the era were a natural part of that reality, Brands said: “These were very competitive business leaders, and they perceived competition as the way the business world worked. If it meant that sometimes they would align their interests and collaborate, they would do that. If it meant that they would then change course and compete with each other, they would do that as well. Each one identified very closely and personally with his own enterprise.”
McCarroll added: “One of the things we were really intrigued by when we started really peeling back the layers of the story was the idea that a lot of the laws that governed business practices in this country grew out of that era—an era of these guys’ ingenuity and their ability to do things that at that time were perfectly legal, but have since come to be thought of as maybe a little bit less than honorable!”
Fascinated by the irrevocable transformation of America during that period, McCarroll said that the show’s title appropriately credits the industry leaders for their contributions. He revealed the heavy involvement of History’s Filipino-American executive producer Paul Cabana, who was very specific with his vision for the project.
“Paul played a huge part in building this project,” he said. “He and I are a hundred percent, 50-50 partners in everything that we do. He was really adamant in the inclusion of people like HW, and really using those guys to contextualize the story. He was a really big drive on that.”
(“The Innovators: The Men Who Built America” will air Wednesdays, 9 p.m. starting March 13 on History.)