HBO has greenlighted American Lion, a six-hour event miniseries about Andrew Jackson, with Oscar winner Sean Penn set to play the 7th President of the United States in his first major TV role. The project hails from Facebook’s Head of Market Development Matt Jacobson, Narcos co-creators Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard and Lionsgate Television.
The mini is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, written by historian Jon Meacham, with Robert V. Remini’s biography of Jackson as additional source material. Orphaned at the hands of the British, Andrew Jackson was a self-made man, a western outsider, a violent warrior and a beloved general who became the country’s first “People’s President.” With the fate of the United States uncertain, the willful and mercurial Jackson fought an intractable Congress and special interests to preserve the Union at all costs – leaving a mixed and deeply controversial legacy. Miro and Bernard are writing the script and will executive produce the mini with Penn (Milk, Mystic River) and Jacobson. Meacham serves as a consultant on the miniseries, set to start production next year.
This marks the first producing gig
for Jacobson, who started his career in television and worked in TV syndication for News Corp. before moving to the digital side with gigs at Quiksilver and Facebook where he is the longest-serving employee besides Mark Zuckerberg. About three years ago, Jacobson, a self-professed history buff, read Meacham’s book. “I saw a lot of analogies with what is happening now and felt the story needed to be told,” he said. Some of those parallels include political campaigns that can turn incredibly nasty and personal. During the 1828 Presidential race, Jackson’s opponents attacked his wife who had been married before, calling her a “whore.” She died of an apparent heart attack shortly after Jackson was elected. Jacobson did research and realized that there were no projects in development about “this incredibly important President who had a remarkable impact on history that most people neither knew about nor understood. He got things done. I thought we needed some of that in American politics.”
Jackson was the only U.S. president to pay off the national debt. He fought corruption and stepped in to protect the union by denying states’ right to secede. But his tenure was also marked by controversies, including the Bank War and the Indian Removal Act.
Jacobson optioned Meacham’s book and started meeting with writers. Miro and Bernard, who were yet to create their popular Netflix drama Narcos, stood out immediately. “They have come from a young and modern point of view,” Jacobson said. “This doesn’t feel like men in dark rooms — Andrew Jackson was an active president at an important time for the country.”
Jacobson chalks up Penn’s involvement in the project to serendipity. Back in the 1980s, Penn was hitchhiking along the road when Jacobson and his dad picked him up. More than two decades later, Jacobson again bumped into Penn when the two sat next to each other on a plane. The two reconnected and became friends. Jacobson told Penn about the Andrew Jackson project he was working on and gave him Meacham’s book. Penn expressed interest and earlier this year, when there was a finished script, Jacobson sent it to Penn. Penn responded immediately that he wanted to play Jackson. At that point, Jacobson had already partnered with Lionsgate TV on the miniseries, capitalizing on his existing relationship with the Lionsgate leadership through his job at Facebook. The project was later taken to HBO, with Jacobson praising the network and the studio for being “incredibly supportive in the development process.”
Jacobson said he’d always envisioned American Lion as a miniseries. He found it hard to highlight a single period in Jackson’s life for a movie. Additionally, “I want as many people to see it as possible, and television is a great way to do that.” When the time comes, would Jacobson be part of American Lion‘s social media promotional strategy? He said he will leave marketing in the hands of HBO but quipped that if he is asked, that would be “one of the few topics on which I actually have expertise.”
This marks the first series order at HBO for Lionsgate TV, which has produced shows for the other other two premium cable networks.
Actor-director-producer Penn has been nominated five times for an Oscar as Best Actor, winning for Mystic River and Milk. Most recently, he directed Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem in The Last Face, which is in post-production. Aside from showbiz, Penn is an active humanitarian as founder and CEO of J/P Haitian Relief Organization.