I’m imagining the caption above strikes readers in a couple of ways. Those who haven’t been here more than ten or fifteen years may wonder “Who is Bill Landry?” For the others, the very name invokes a ground-breaking legend. For those of us who have been around Knoxville for decades, his Heartland television series, which ran from 1984 to about 2019, helped us understand the wonderful region we call home and gave us a deeper appreciation for who we are.
A friend offered to connect me with Bill, and I found him to be open and relaxed and willing to talk and answer questions as long as I asked. To hear that familiar voice again, the one that told us so many great stories, was a delight. He lives on Pauley’s Island, now, on the South Carolina coast. He started our conversation by telling me their home was flooded with two-and-a-half feet of water from Hurricane Ian and they’ve moved three times since September. They hope to get back into their home this summer.
Bill grew up in Chattanooga in a household with two parents and nine children. He’s written about it to some extent, he said, in his new book, The Last Hurrah, at least, he said, “The parts that wouldn’t get anyone arrested.” His father was “in the wool business,” and they lived for years near his maternal grandparents. His grandfather played football at the University of Chattanooga (now UTC) under “Scrappy Moore,” and years later, Bill also played football for the university. Most importantly, while in his undergraduate years he began performing in plays.
I asked Bill how his family felt about him pursuing acting, his first vocational and educational choice (he has a Master of Fine Arts from the Dallas Theater Center). “They didn’t care. There was nine of us. They didn’t even know where we were most of the time . . . We all played sports. I have an older sister and then there were five boys in a row and three more girls. We had a lot of love in that house.” He said, only a little tongue-in-cheek, that the level of activity prepared him for a career in television.
During graduate school, he returned to Tennessee and taught for a year at Morristown East High School and coached swimming and football. He returned to Texas, and after graduation came back to the area, marrying Lynn Jones from Harriman. They moved to Knoxville, and he worked at Roane State, producing a bicentennial play.
“I was trying to find a way to make a living and I was doing a one-man play about Albert Einstein (Einstein the Man, which Bill also wrote) at the Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge . . . I thought if there was one place in America where you ought to be able to do a play about Albert Einstein, it would be Oak Ridge, Tennessee.” The play was put on the road for two years by the “Energy Education Division. We did thirty-eight states and two provinces of Canada. It did a thousand performances.”
He grew weary of the road and returned to Knoxville. He worked for two years for TVA as “a real-life fake riverboat captain.” It started when they hired him for the role at the 1982 World’s Fair and continued afterward up and down the Tennessee River to mark the fiftieth anniversary of TVA. “We did about a week at twenty-three different ports. The barges were pushed by a TVA towboat.”
Bill Landry’s Most Recent Book, A Last Hurrah (Photo courtesy of Bill Landry)It was an important job because he said, “Really, that’s how I started learning about the people of the Tennessee Valley. We did six months at the World’s Fair and then in September started down the river . . . When I started working for channel ten, that’s what we continued to do . . . I’ve kind of been doing the same thing for fifty years.”
He started with the Heartland Series in 1984 and I asked if it was developed before he came on board. “Hell, no. We didn’t know what we were doing. Jim Hart was the general manager; Steve Dean was the Creative Services Director and they wanted to do something special to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the National Park.” It started as a plan to do a few special stories on the people and the land. He said the idea was to “get the camera out of the studio and put it on location in the most beautiful place in the world, the Great Smoky Mountains, and start learning about the people before they were gone.”
He said before their program, it was too expensive to take cameras that far out into the field and up onto mountains. “We weren’t hired because we were smart, we were hired because we were strong. We had to carry that gear.” He said he carried equipment up to Mt. Le Conte five times and he never plans on doing that again. “We went one time when it was twenty-four below zero.”
He knew he could do the producing and writing part from his work in theater. He didn’t know, however, the magic that could happen in the studio after production. “I had no idea you could do the things that Steve and Doug Mills, the cameraman, and Linda Billman the producer, could do. After I saw the first few shows, I knew it was going to be a hit . . . No one had ever done anything like it.” He had a three-month contract and hoped it might be extended to a year.
He said the first year focused on the Great Smoky Mountains. “After the first year we decided to do two shows in every county in East Tennessee which would force us to explore.” He said it was Steve’s idea and allowed them to make connections and get to know a far wider range of people. “We started to learn something. That was our study for twenty-five years. We were fortunate to able to do that. It was unique.” He said they hiked twenty-five miles a week for years, doing two short features a week, fifty weeks a year.
He said it was a lot of pressure to get the details right in every episode or “you’d get a phone call.” He got called on his pronunciation of “Appalachian” in the first minute of the first episode. He also tried to speak at church socials or other places once a week. “You get to learn and know people, who you can trust, who tells a good story, where you get mules, who can provide a horse on Le Conte.” They used a lot of maps wore out copies of Foxfire books. “We would find things that were not in Foxfire.” They were often not able to communicate with anyone back home.
He’s often asked about particular episodes that people remember. One of the most remembered was one on “grabbling,” which is the art of fishing for catfish with your bare hands by feeling, unseen, into their holes at the bottom of the water. “That was a crazy story and really fascinating people. I said ‘George, what do you do when you stick your hand in a snake hole?’ and he said, ‘Bill, we just leave them. We don’t eat them. Come go with us next week, we are going after some snapping turtles.”
The program ran for twenty-five years, producing over 1400 short stories (which ran for years after the 11:00 news on WBIR) and 150 half-hour features. It won four Emmy Awards and many others. Bill personally won Emmys for directing the series in 1999 and 2000.
The series ended in 2009, though there were occasional shows and specials for the next several years. “It was a pretty tumultuous period in 2010 and 2015. The series was ending, and everyone was going their own way to make a living. I was doing commercials, voices-overs.” He taught a bit and began writing books. His son lives in Wilmington, North Carolina and the move to Pawley’s Island put them closer to him. He describes it as “not nearly as frenetic as Charleston.” He put a out a book, When the West Was Tennessee, out just as the pandemic broke, and he still does some voice-over work.
He will speak at the upcoming Wildflower Pilgrimage, April 26 – 29 in Gatlinburg on the topic of William Bartram, who was also the subject of the pilot episode of The Heartland Series. “Bartram visited 144 Indian villages in the southeast in 1773 – 1775 and wrote the first book in 1792 that drew the first attention to east Tennessee and the Cherokee Indians. We’d never heard of him. How wonderful that the station chose that guy instead of Crockett or Sam Houston . . . Instead, we picked a botanist.” He’ll have a video of Bartram on Thursday night and speak and tell stories from the series and his books on Friday night.
His latest book is A Last Hurrah, just came out in December and he’ll have copies on hand at the pilgrimage. He plans to return to east Tennessee in June and hopes to have a book signing in Knoxville when he does. In addition to the video above, the Heartland episodes are available on Youtube.