Robert M. Young, one of the pioneers of American independent cinema whose work began nearly 70 years ago, died Tuesday in Los Angeles. The news was announced via a Facebook post from his son Andy.
In a career that lasted from 1956 to 2011 he directed documentaries, narrative features, both independent and studio releases, and even episodes of “Battlestar: Gallactica.” Two of his films have recently been added to the Library of Congress Film Registry. “¡Alambrista!” (1977), as timely today as when it was made, about the life of undocumented Mexican immigrant won the Camera d’or for best first film at Cannes. “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” (1982), one of Young’s eight films with actor Edward James Olmos, produced by American Playhouse but released theatrically, has also been included. Both films are also part of the Criterion Collection.
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Though perhaps not as well known as some pre-Sundance independent American directors like John Cassavetes, John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch, Melvin Van Peebles, Joan Micklin Silver, and others, Young’s career broke significant ground. His 20 feature films (including documentaries and co-directed efforts) consistently showed his interest in discussing social issues via treatments meant to reach wider audiences.
“We lose important people all the time but then there are those who embodied a spirit that is truly original. Bob Young was one of those,” former Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper said in a statement to IndieWire. “I fondly remember him as an indie cowboy…a rebel…and a believer in the power of cinema. His love of cinema was infectious and deep. He was always there to contribute in knowledge and talent to anyone lucky enough to be in his path. I was on his road many times and I felt lucky to know him. I also felt proud to celebrate him whenever he found his way to Sundance. I thought he would live forever… but now we must say a fond goodbye. I do it with gratitude for all he shared with the world.”
Robert Milton Young was born in New York on November 22, 1924. His father Al was the founder of DuArt Film & Video, a leading New York production facility that remains a vital resource for independent films. (Young’s brother Irwin won an honorary Academy Award in 2000 for its contributions).
After attending MIT, he served in the Navy in the South Pacific as part of a photographic unit in World War II, then graduated from Harvard. He began his career making scientific films, which led to early directing and cinematography credits on documentaries, particularly on TV. In his early days, his mentors included Merian C. Cooper (producer of “King Kong,” which his sons relate was a key early experience, as well as some key 1930s documentary features) and Lowell Thomas, a pioneering broadcaster who specialized in travel topics.
In 1956, he co-directed “Secrets of the Reef,” in which his work filming sharks underwater broke new ground. In 1960, working for NBC News, his film “Sit-In” about Civil Rights activists in the South, with footage of a young John Lewis decades before he became a Congressman, won a Peabody Award.
His early major mark in independent feature making came with “Nothing but a Man” (1964), directed by Michael Roemer, for which he was cinematographer, and co-writer and co-producer. This was a key entry in the history of American independent film, notable for its serious content about Civil Rights. It starred Ivan Dixon as an Alabama railroad worker struggling to maintain his self-respect in a troubled era. It also has been added to the Library of Congress registry.
His first solo feature as director was “Short Eyes” (1977), an independently-made adaptation of Miguel Piñero’s play starring Bruce Davison as an accused child rapist in a New York jail. “Alambrista!” followed, then two-studio backed titles (“Rich Kids” and “One-Trick Pony,” the latter with Paul Simon).
“Gregoria Cortez” followed, then later multiple films that dealt with contemporary, often difficult subjects. “Extremities” with Farrah Fawcett as a woman who escapes a sexual assault only to face stalking; “Dominick and Eugene” with Tom Hulce and Ray Liotta as twin brothers, one of whom has a learning disability; “Triumph of the Spirit” with Willem Dafoe as a Jewish boxer who survived the Holocaust. Though from a Jewish background, he frequently dealt with subjects and characters from the Latino community.
As a pioneering independent director, he broke through without the structure that now supports many independent filmmakers. Significantly, he came to feature films after many years of journeyman work in multiple fields, with a possession of skills in wide areas that younger rookie independent directors often lack.
Among his documentary films, “Children of Fate: Life and Death in a Sicilian Family” (1993) which he co-directed won both the Grand Jury and Cinematography prizes.
Apart from “Gregorio Cortez,” Edward James Olmos appeared in seven other Young-directed films and remained very close to him to him and his family until the end of his life.
At the time of his death Young was, per most reliable information, the oldest living film director.
Young is survived by his wife Lili, sons Andrew, Nick, and Zack, daughters Melissa and Sarah, and nine grandchildren. Plans for a memorial are pending.
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