Nobody laughed when Thomas Jefferson sat down to write the Declaration of Independence. Even so, the solemnity of much of this year's Bicentennial celebration seems better suited to a patriotic funeral than a national birthday. No country, especially this one, could survive 200 years without being able to laugh at itself. And so when PEOPLE asked the 13 celebrities on these pages to portray a few of the best-known Revolutionary characters, they dressed up, hammed up and even saddled up—convinced that the Founding Parents wouldn't have objected to a little good-natured fun.
Washington was a stand-up guy
"I've always admired George Washington," says New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, "because he held his team together and won in the face of tremendous adversity. However," adds the perplexed field general, whose knees are his own Valley Forge, "I never could figure out why he stood up in the boat. It's not easy, you know."
The First Daughter as first First Lady
"Martha Washington was born in Virginia," says Susan Ford of the first First Lady. "And I was born in Virginia. She knew a President of the United States very well, and so do I. She lived at Mount Vernon [above]. I go to school at Mount Vernon [Junior College]. We have a lot in common. But how she survived a Washington summer in an outfit like this I'll never know—1976 is definitely a cooler time to be a woman, in more ways than one."
The Flip side of Ben Franklin
"Not only was Ben Franklin one of the hippest fathers of our country," insists Flip Wilson, bounding along the California landscape in the footsteps of the scientist-statesman. "He was also one of the hippest mothuhs. The ladies used to say the only thing hotter than Ben was the Franklin stove."
King George III by a modern Rex
When it comes to King George III of England, sympathetic fellow Briton Rex Harrison looks on the bright side. "He may have been slightly deranged," concedes the actor, "but his loss of the American colonies has been mitigated by history. Independent, Americans grew strong and became allies rather than reluctant subjects. I would like to suggest that even in George's faltering mind, there prevailed a sense of history which could have anticipated the endurance of our transatlantic bonds."
Jefferson labors to get it right
"Thomas Jefferson was regarded as a fraud by his enemies and a genius by his friends," says NBC anchorman John Chancellor. "I think he was a genius most of the time, and I sympathize with him as a writer. He wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence and submitted it to a committee for approval. The committee made changes, and then the Continental Congress struck out some passages and inserted others. Which must have given Jefferson a feeling known to writers through the ages."
Fiedler on the hoof as Paul Revere
"Paul Revere is one of the most exciting figures of the Revolutionary period," observes Arthur Fiedler, conductor of the Boston Pops, as he fights to control his rented steed in the shadow of Boston's Old North Church. "I envy him his ride." Silversmith Revere, of course, galloped through the Massachusetts countryside, warning of a British plan to attack Concord. Would Fiedler have volunteered for the assignment in 1775? "Yes," the maestro, 81, replies, "but I might have fallen off the horse."
For the defense, lawyer John Adams
In 1770, lawyer John Adams risked his reputation when he defended nine British soldiers accused of murdering five rioting colonists in the "Boston Massacre." "Adams is symbolic of the duty of the bar to take on unpopular cases," maintains Boston lawyer F. Lee Bailey. "It was a damned delicate situation. It would have been like defending Patty Hearst in front of the SLA. The proof of Adams' defense was that he won." How would Adams have defended Miss Hearst? "Show that she had been fixed by the spell of a witch and attribute the whole thing to Salem. They would have hanged the witch and Patty would have gotten off."
Benedict Arnold was not a bad egg
"Benedict Arnold has been misunderstood," claims his doppelgänger, columnist Art Buchwald. "A great general, a ladies' man par excellence and one of the big spenders of the time, he might have been the father of our country if Congress hadn't passed him over for promotion. 'Arnold, D.C.,' Thomas Jefferson said, 'just doesn't sound right.' Added John Adams: 'New Yorkers would never pay to drive over the Benedict Arnold Bridge.'
"Embittered by his country's ingratitude, Arnold started a correspondence with Major John André. 'Dear André,' he wrote, 'I am an American general and nobody understands me. I'm also in need of money. Do you know anybody I could surrender West Point to?' Unfortunately, André was captured with this letter in his boot and Arnold was declared a traitor.
"Maybe so, but if General Arnold had been able to turn over West Point to the British, there wouldn't have been a cheating scandal there this year."
Diane is starstruck by Betsy's flag
"Betsy Ross must have been very talented," surmises dress designer Diane von Furstenberg of the storied Philadelphia seamstress. "If I had to redesign the flag I wouldn't change a thing. It's the most beautiful flag I have ever seen." And what of the billowy Colonial creation that von Furstenberg, famous for her shirtdresses, slipped into? "This isn't exactly my style."
A champ in chains is a black hero
"Loooook-ee here," Muhammad Ali shouts as he walks into a Chicago park for his portrait, "these white folks are putting me in chains." Then Ali turns somber, recalling that Crispus Attucks, a black man killed in the "Boston Massacre," was a slave before gaining his freedom. "This is an honest portrayal of what we did," says Ali. "We worked as slave laborers to make this country rich." He adds in verse:
"Better than in prison rot,/ If there's any choice I've got,/ I'd rather perish on the spot./ Better now that I should go,/ Standing here against the foe,/ Is there sweeter death to know?"
Hale fellow Sonny is ready to swing
Ordered hanged as a spy by Britain's Gen. William Howe, Connecticut schoolmaster Nathan Hale regretted that he had but one life to lose for his country. Now he has another: Sonny Bono's. "Hale had ability, handsomeness, charm and an engaging manner, says Sonny. "How could anyone fault a person with those qualities?" How, Howe?
Burr didn't leave Hamilton laughin'
After accusing his longtime political enemy Alexander Hamilton (right) of spreading rumors besmirching his honor, Aaron Burr shot Hamilton to death in a duel. "Hamilton and Burr were a marvelous team," explain Dan Rowan (left) and Dick Martin, quick to appreciate two nonpareil fellow troupers. "It was amazing how they put over the ruse that they were fighting about Dolley Madison. Actually, Hamilton had stolen two of Burr's routines."