Ken Burns has been telling stories in documentaries about the Civil War, jazz, the Roosevelts, country music and Ernest Hemingway for decades. But he has an interesting bit of personal history to share, too.
It’s about his hair, and there’s a surprisingly emotional reason for why his look went unchanged for 40 years: his late mother.
Fans know that Burns’ legendary locks recently underwent a shift; thanks to lockdown he’s let them grow out and in recent TV appearances he has sported a shaggier look.
GQ got the scoop, not only on the change but why he stayed so consistent in the past with his hairstyle.
“All of my life, as my late father-in-law who was a psychologist said, I’ve been waking the dead,” he explained. “Part of that is a really good thing: I know how to make Jackie Robinson and Abraham Lincoln come alive for you. Obviously I’m a failure at the one that I really want, and of course that’s impossible.”
He’s referring to his mother, who died when he was just 11. “I think the hair was just part of a connection,” he continued. “My hair was a Beatle cut when she died. I had had my last barbershop haircut when she was alive, and I don’t think I cut it until ’75.”
For reference, when The Beatles first broke big in the 1960s, they were known as “mop tops” who wore matching, straight-edged, floppy haircuts. It was a polarizing look at the time, but it has had a bit of a resurgence in recent years, with celebrities ranging from Charlize Theron to Halle Berry to Harry Styles sporting versions of the do.
For the past four decades, Burns, 67, explained that he’s utilized the services of the same hairdresser, going to whatever shop or location she’s currently working in. And the Beatle cut has always been a signature look for him, plus a source of fascination for fans and critics alike. There’s even a community page on Facebook called Ken Burns’ Hair.
“Never has so much hair meant so little to so many people for so long a time,” he said. “The very first notices I was getting with my first film on PBS, back in the early ’80s, people were talking about this Beatle-haired, mop-top whatever.”
But because of the pandemic, he’s only had a small trim done once in the past year, which means he’s looking a little more … well, like a documentary filmmaker these days.
So will he go back to the old look that he ties so closely to his beloved mother?
“We’ll see what happens when things open up and we get back in the world,” he told the magazine. “But I’m not sure I can go back to John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Ken.”
Randee Dawn (she/her) is a veteran entertainment journalist and author based in Brooklyn. In addition to writing for outlets including TODAY.com, Variety and The Los Angeles Times, she’s the co-author of “The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion” and co-editor of “Across the Universe: Tales of Alternative Beatles.” When not interviewing the stars or dabbling in speculative fiction, she nurses her sourdough starter and dreams of the day she can travel again.
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