Michael Burns (actor and historian)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Michael Burns
Born Michael Thornton Burns
(1947-12-30) December 30, 1947 (age 69)
Mineola, New York, U.S.
Residence Danville, Kentucky
Nationality American
Alma mater College of William and Mary
University of California, Los Angeles
Yale University
Occupation Retired history professor
Former actor
Political party Democrat[1]
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Topham Kennan (m. 1986)
Children Stepson Frank Alexander Kennan
Parent(s) Frank Xavier and Mary Lou DeWeese Burns

Michael Thornton Burns (born December 30, 1947) is an American professor emeritus of history at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts,[2] and a former television and film actor, particularly known for his role as the teenager "Barnaby West" from 1960 to 1965 on the NBC and ABC western series, Wagon Train.


Burns is the son of NBC pioneer, director, and producer Frank Xavier Burns, known for the early television series, Martin Kane, Private Eye, of which Lloyd Nolan was one of four alternating stars. His mother was the former Mary Lou DeWeese.[citation needed]

Michael Burns was born in Mineola in Nassau County on Long Island near New York City. In 1949, the Burnses, including his older sister, Pamela, moved to Yonkers, New York. In 1956, the family relocated to Beverly Hills, California, where he attended Beverly Hills High School. He attended for a year at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia before he transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles, which he attended mostly after hours will still working as an actor during many days and residing in Redondo Beach. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa summa cum laude in 1976 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. He then obtained his Master of Arts in European history at the same institution. In 1977, he entered Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, from which he received his Ph.D. in Modern European history.[3]



Burns became an actor through chance, not because his parents pushed him in that direction. He was discovered by Lee Wallace, the head of casting for 20th Century Fox, who saw Michael perform at a home in Beverly Hills as a 10-year-old portraying Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Wallace arranged Burns' debut on the 1960 episode, "A Taste of Lobster" of CBS's The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, starring Dwayne Hickman. Michael played a shrewd 13-year-old businessman, Chrissie Tyler, the owner of a babysitting agency."[3]

A well-known child actor, he was soon cast as a regular on Wagon Train in the role of the orphaned "Barnaby West" during seasons 4-8. He worked on the series with John McIntire, Robert Horton, Robert Fuller, Denny Scott Miller, Terry Wilson, and Frank McGrath. Howard Christie the producer of Wagon Train considered Burns the best of all the child actors: "His talent is outstanding. He can project more emotion with his eyes than most performers achieve with pages of dialog."[3] His teachers on the set found young Burns among the most cooperative and easily educated of their charges.[3]

Burns co-starred with Glenn Corbett, Ted Bessell, and Randy Boone in a 19-episode NBC comedy/drama It's a Man's World in the 1962–1963 season. In that series, Burns played 14-year-old Howie Macauley, who lives on a houseboat called the Elephant on the Ohio River with his older brother Wes, played by Corbett. Bessell and Boone were the two other young men living with them. The program was hailed by its viewers and critics for its portrayal of restless youth but was quickly cancelled because of low Nielsen ratings. Bessell and Boone undertook a campaign to try to save the series but could not sway network executives. Bessell said that Burns by instinct knew more about acting that Bessel did with six years of experience when they began working on It's a Man's World.[3]

Burns appeared with James Stewart in the 1962 film, Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation. In 1966, he joined Audie Murphy in the western film, 40 Guns to Apache Pass. He appeared as a guest star in over thirty-five series during the 1960s and 1970s, mostly Westerns, including CBS's long-running Gunsmoke with James Arness, NBC's The Virginian and The Road West, and ABC's The Legend of Jesse James and The Big Valley. During his twenties, Burns appeared in several films, including Journey to Shiloh (1968), The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell (1968), That Cold Day in the Park (1969), Thumb Tripping (1972) and Santee (1973).

Burns appeared as "Blue Boy" in "The LSD Story", the pilot episode of the relaunched Jack Webb police series Dragnet 1967.


In 1980, Burns became a professor of history at Mount Holyoke. In 1991, he authored, Dreyfus A Family Affair, 1789–1945, a study of the Dreyfus affair in France during the 1890s. A reviewer of Burns' book writing in The New York Times called the work "a solidly written book about the man and his family, a book that emphasizes the elemental human drama of the captain's story."[4] Upon his retirement in 2002, Burns was honored by Mount Holyoke with the designation professor emeritus.[5]

Later life[edit]

While on the faculty at Mount Holyoke College, Burns in June 1986 married the college's then 16th president, Elizabeth Topham Kennan (born 1938). She has a son, Frank Alexander Kennan, from her previous marriage. While at Mount Holyoke, the couple resided in Ipswich in Essex County, Massachusetts, and in the village of South Woodstock in Windsor County in eastern Vermont. Since 2002, Michael and Elizabeth Burns have resided in Boyle County near Danville, Kentucky, where they have restored the Cambus-Kenneth Estate, a crop, cattle, and thoroughbred horse farm listed on the National Register of Historic Places.[5] He is a member of the Thoroughbred Club of America, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders, and the Kentucky Cattlemen's Association.[citation needed]

A Democrat, Burns was a donor to then U.S. Senator John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election and to Daniel Mongiardo, the party nominee for the U.S. Senate from Kentucky that same year. Kerry and Mongiardo lost to incumbent Republicans George W. Bush and Jim Bunning, respectively.[1]

Burns is an Episcopalian.[citation needed]



  • France and the Dreyfus Affair: A Documentary History (1998)[6]
  • Dreyfus : A family affair, 1789–1945 (1991)[4]
  • Rural society and French politics : Boulangism and the Dreyfus affair, 1886–1900 (1984)[7]


Select filmography[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Michael Burns of Danville, Kentucky: $25,150 in Political Contributions for 2004". campaignmoney.com. Retrieved April 5, 2017. 
  2. ^ "Citations search: "Michael Burns" (Google Books)". Retrieved 2007-11-09. 
  3. ^ a b c d e "Michael Burns: A trial run led to Wagon Train". The Michael Burns Site from undated issue of TV News. Retrieved April 4, 2017. 
  4. ^ a b "Why the Drefus Affair Rings Through History". The New York Times. October 11, 1991. Retrieved April 4, 2017. 
  5. ^ a b "Three faculty members retire as emeriti". College Street Journal at Mount Holyoke College. May 24, 2002. Retrieved April 4, 2017. 
  6. ^ http://www.powells.com/biblio/65-9780312111670-0
  7. ^ http://www.biblio.com/books/72752230.html

External links[edit]