Robert Drew, influential documentary film pioneer; at 90

Documentary filmmaker Robert Drew at work in 2002.
Drew Associates
Documentary filmmaker Robert Drew at work in 2002.

NEW YORK — Filmmaker Robert Drew, a pioneer of the modern documentary who in ‘‘Primary’’ and other movies mastered the intimate, spontaneous style known as cinema verite and schooled a generation of influential directors that included D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles, has died at 90.

His son Thatcher Drew confirmed he died Wednesday at his home in Sharon, Conn.

Starting in 1960 with ‘‘Primary,’’ Mr. Drew produced and sometimes directed a series of television documentaries that took advantage of such innovations as light hand-held cameras that recorded sound and pictures. With filmmakers newly unburdened, nonfiction movies no longer had to be carefully staged and awkwardly narrated. Directors could work more like journalists, following their subjects for hours and days at a time and capturing revealing moments.


Filmmaker Michael Moore said Wednesday that Mr. Drew, along with Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, ‘‘made it possible for real stories to be told through film.’’

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‘‘Modern art has Picasso. Rock-n-roll has Bill Haley. And the documentary film has Robert Drew,’’ Moore said. ‘‘All of us who make nonfiction movies can trace our lineage to what he created.’’

Mr. Drew’s dozens of films included ‘‘The Chair,’’ a 1963 documentary about a death penalty case in Illinois, and ‘‘784 Days That Changed America: From Watergate to Resignation,’’ winner in 1982 of a Peabody award. Many of his movies were coproduced by his wife, Anne, who died in 2012.

While a photographer and editor with Life, Mr. Drew formed Drew Associates in 1960 with the goal of applying his magazine experience to films. Among those joining him were such future directors as Pennebaker (“Don’t Look Back,’’ “The War Room”), Maysles (who with brother David made ‘‘Gimme Shelter’’ and ‘‘Grey Gardens”) and Leacock (“Happy Mother’s Day”).

Their approach, called cinema verite, or direct cinema, also was used in feature films, by directors John Cassavetes, Louis Malle, and Agnes Varda among others. And the new style led to fierce and enduring debates about truth in movies, whether a fly-on-the-wall approach was any more objective than a narrative with a point of view worked out in advance.


Frederick Wiseman, an award-winning documentary maker, called cinema verite ‘‘a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning.’’

Mr. Drew’s ‘‘Primary’’ is widely ranked among the most important political documentaries and in 1990 was entered into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for historic works. It follows presidential candidates and fellow Democrats Senator Hubert Humphrey and Senator John F. Kennedy as they campaigned in Wisconsin for their party’s nomination, which Kennedy eventually received.

‘‘Kennedy asked questions about how this would work,’’ Mr. Drew later explained. ‘‘I told him we were partial to neither side and would edit fairly, and for this to work at all, he would have to trust me. He gave me a long look and said, ‘If I don’t call you by tomorrow, we’re on.’ And he didn’t call, and we were on.’’

Like Theodore White’s classic campaign book ‘‘The Making of the President, 1960,’’ Mr. Drew’s film was a new kind of narrative that captured a revolutionary change in politics — the ascendance of the telegenic Kennedy over the plainer, chattier style of Humphrey. ‘‘Primary’’ revealed such contrasts as a polite gathering of farmers at a Humphrey speech in a half-empty hall and the large, cheering crowds that showed up for Kennedy’s events.

Mr. Drew and Kennedy agreed that they should make a film showing how the presidency worked in real time. In 1963, Drew and Associates made ‘‘Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment,’’ about the showdown between the Kennedy administration and Governor George Wallace of Alabama, who was resisting a court order to integrate the University of Alabama. The filmmakers went from the White House to the office of Attorney General Robert Kennedy to the Alabama university campus, to inside Wallace’s car.


The public was not used to seeing a sitting president filmed on the job, and some reviews criticized Mr. Drew for turning the White House into a film set.

‘‘The White House isn’t Macy’s window,’’ a New York Times editorial complained.

Mr. Drew was born in Toledo, Ohio.