No one ever had grasped that uniquely American promise, "the pursuit of happiness," quite the way Phineas Taylor Barnum did.

Barnum, born in 1810, saw that by mid-century American workers for the first time had free time and money and were willing to spend them on being entertained.

And entertain them is exactly what he set out to do.

Whether he was a born salesman, a brilliant entrepreneur or just an enthusiastic huckster, Barnum understood his clientele -- from the growing contingent of immigrants who couldn't yet speak English to the elite of New York City who were eager to fork over big bucks to hear arias from a singer he called the Swedish Nightingale.

Even if he engaged in a form of exaggeration that sometimes bordered on scam, Barnum was true to his goal: He wanted to give the people their money's worth, and to keep them coming back to his museum, and later his circus, to see other extravaganzas he promoted.

But the colorful showman may never have uttered the condescending remark widely attributed to him: "There's a sucker born every minute." As much as Barnum loved razzle-dazzle, that remark, believes screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd, would have been entirely out of character.

Entertaining, informative and largely sympathetic, A&E's "P.T. Barnum," airing Sunday and Monday at 8, dramatizes his personal life and his lively career. And as it turned out, Barnum's 81 years weren't entirely full of parades and cotton candy, Swedish Nightingales, Tom Thumbs, Jumbo the elephants and "Feejee mermaids."

As Beau Bridges plays him in the cable service's miniseries, Barnum was an energetic man who was devoted to his wife, Charity, and their four daughters and determined to make good in a culture still heavily weighted toward the well-to-do and the aristocratic.

Upbeat and extroverted as he was, he nevertheless faced tragedy as well: the deaths of his parents, of one of his beloved daughters, of a grandchild and finally of the wife who had shared his dreams and secret motto ("now or never") and reluctantly tolerated his long absences. Barnum suffered disastrous business reversals and was snubbed by the New York elite. The elaborate Connecticut estate he called Iranistan burned down just as he and his family were preparing to move in.

Yet somehow there was always another deal to buoy his entrepreneurial spirit, another trip, another fortune to be made.

"In Australia, we would call Barnum a lovable scallywag," said director Simon Wince.

"P.T. Barnum," filmed last winter in Montreal and Vancouver, is the first miniseries Wincer has directed since he made "Lonesome Dove" a decade back.

"Barnum was an extremely important person in 19th-century America, an enormous influence in contemporary America," said Wincer. "People don't realize the impact that he's had on people's lives. The way he advertised, the way he sold, the way he would exaggerate -- he really created the world of advertising as we know it today. He really introduced glitz into our business, and Americans are good at that. And he was an honorable man. Even though he pulled off a couple of scams, the people always got their money's worth."

Wincer is fascinated by 19th-century America, a period when the society shifted from rural to urban life.

"When Barnum was a kid, [the population of] New York was 100,000; when he died, Manhattan was a metropolis," said Wincer. "The U.S. was being flooded with immigrants, becoming a multicultural society. Barnum's followers were very much the sort of lower classes, the working classes. That's where he realized this great untapped market. He provided entertainment for them for the weekends because they had money to spend. With Jenny Lind, he introduced opera to the masses."

Barnum discovered Lind, whom he called the Swedish Nightingale, in Europe, and brought her to the United States. In New York, interest in her was so intense that Barnum auctioned off orchestra seats for her first concert, at Castle Garden, to the city's elite, selling some for bids of several hundred dollars -- a sort of one-upmanship over tycoons who had not accepted him socially. He went on to promote Lind's tour of 95 concerts before they parted company.

Among his many endeavors, not all of which are dramatized in this miniseries, was Barnum's early decision to buy the failing Scudder's museum in New York City and rechristen it with his own name. He exhibited oddities he'd found during his world-wide travels, including what he called the "Feejee mermaid," which turned out to be the upper body of a female monkey attached to the lower half of a large fish.

But the museum patrons didn't seem to care that they'd been bamboozled, and Barnum learned that "a big hook" would get people inside. But he also knew they wouldn't return unless they were offered an interesting show. And return they did, hoping to see the other exhibits, wild animals, performances and lectures -- "500,000 natural and artificial curiosities from every corner of the globe," according to Barnum's advertisements.

In 1842, he signed up tiny Charles Stratton, naming him Gen. Tom Thumb and taking him to London to meet Queen Victoria. Stratton and Barnum became life-long friends, and Stratton once made a tour especially to help bail Barnum out of financial difficulties.

The impresario's innovative circus parades gave spectators a taste of what they'd find under the big top if they'd buy a ticket. Under the Barnum & Bailey tent, they would find something new -- "the Greatest Show on Earth," he promised: a ringmaster presiding over three rings, not one, with acts performing simultaneously in all of them. (In 1907, after Barnum's death in 1891, Ringling Brothers purchased the circus.)

Later, Barnum took up politics in Bridgeport, Conn., serving first as president of the Fairfield County Agricultural Society, then as mayor and three terms as a Connecticut state legislator. He was also a trustee of Tufts College, a founder and first president of a bank in Bridgeport and a land developer. But except for a few references, "P.T. Barnum" leaves the political side of his life to other filmmakers.

In fact, even though this portrayal is four hours long, it doesn't include all of Barnum's wide-ranging travels and endeavors as he made and lost several fortunes.

But it does point out that after his first wife, Charity, objected to his drinking alcohol, Barnum became a devotee of temperance. He also spoke publicly in 1865 in favor of "enfranchising Negroes" and is pictured arguing against the pro-Confederate sentiments of his son-in-law.

Jordan Bridges, 25, who portrays the young Barnum during the first hour of the film, saw the man as "the first post-modernist in his representation of the truth -- he wasn't objective, he didn't believe in objectivity, he thought truth was relative: `I give this to the public to do with this what they want.' Even in his autobiography -- he had new editions out every couple of years, and he changed the facts, he would editorialize his life, so it's really hard to sift through all the accounts of this man and find the truth. There's all kinds of incidents, but who knows if they're apocryphal?"

Jordan Bridges did come to one conclusion: He said he believes that Barnum was "wholly responsible for creating the American stereotype in Europe, the loud, rich, gaudy type. They loved him over there."

But more importantly, he said, was Barnum's "profound influence on American culture."

As P.T. Barnum progresses into his extraordinary career, Jordan Bridges passes the portrayal to his father, Beau, winner of three Emmy Awards. The son, who wore blue contact lenses to simulate his father's eyes, and the father said they aimed for a graceful transition.

"Originally I was working independently of him," said Jordan, "but I realized that my version of Barnum was different than his. So I recorded him doing his scenes and he recorded me doing mine."

As they crafted their portrayals, Jordan observed his father's mannerisms ("he works the eyebrows a lot, the hands"). Beau, who had heard Barnum's voice on an archival recording, credits his son with improving Dad's diction.

"Barnum affected a very theatrical kind of voice," said Beau Bridges. "The recording only lasts about three or four sentences, but it was enough to hear that his diction was very important to him. I got a little intimidated because his diction is so perfect.

"In a way, Jordan was more prepared for the role than I was. Jordan graduated from Bard College, spent a year in London studying the classics, and he helped me. And after I read Lionel's script, I kind of did a crash course on Barnum. He was an American, but he was really a citizen of the world."

To screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd, however, Barnum "was the first American of the modern age, which is why I chose to begin [the film] with a cattle drive. Yet when he dies, modern America will be clearly visible and it will be so much his doing.

"He understood things about America that no one else did: the impact of the immigrants, gathering together people who did not share a modern language -- so, visual entertainment would be a modern art form. He always wished to be perceived as a modern man."

Chetwynd thinks it's likely Barnum never made the derogatory quotation widely attributed to him. "He was serious about democratizing, and that's why he could not have said, `A sucker is born every moment,' " said the screenwriter.

Chetwynd was on the set in Montreal last winter during part of the filming and believes Wincer and the actors did right by the writer and his subject.

To him, that was important.

"I wanted to be true to him," he said. "I take great pains in being accurate. I take as few liberties as possible. I can stand by everything in there. Whatever you see there is absolutely true or definitely comports the spirit of what's going on. I think he was responsible for much of what we are and what we became."

Barnum was an entrepreneur to the end. Three weeks before he died, he approved plans and signed a contract for the building of the Barnum Institute of Science and History, now known as the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport.

A&E's "Biography" offers a profile of showman P.T. Barnum Tuesday at 8.