By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times
8:15 AM PDT, July 11, 2011
Robert Sklar, a film scholar known for bringing the insights of the social historian to understanding the history of American film, has died. He was 74.
Sklar, who also was one of the original Rotisserie League fantasy baseball "owners" in the 1980s, died in Barcelona, Spain, July 2 after suffering head injuries in a bicycling accident, said Richard Allen, professor and chair of cinema studies at New York University.
A professor in the department of cinema studies at New York University from 1977 until his retirement in 2009, Sklar was the author of books that included "City Boys: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield" (1992) and "Film: An International History of the Medium" (1993).
"He's among the most important and innovative historians of American film, especially in terms of his approach to understanding film history," said William Simon, a professor of cinema studies at NYU.
Sklar's 1975 book "Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies," is considered his seminal work.
"It set a standard for historical scholarship in the field that inspires each generation of film scholars anew," Allen wrote in a tribute to Sklar on NYU's Cinema Studies website.
"It brings a wealth of archival and historical research to bear on its subject," Allen told The Times last week, "and it understands and explains the relationship between American movies and the forces of social change."
Noting that Sklar earned a doctorate in the history of American civilization from Harvard and taught history at the University of Michigan before joining NYU's department of cinema studies, Allen said that "Bob brought that historian's skill to bear upon the understanding and appreciation of how movies came about, and this was never done before with such rigor.
"That makes him sound like an ivory tower academic, but his style is accessible to everyone. He was a very good writer."
Sklar, whose books included "Prime-Time America: Life on and Behind the Television Screen" (1980) and "A World History of Film" (2001), continued to write for film journals throughout his life, particularly the journal Cineaste.
Sklar, Allen said, played a leading role in the development of the modern fields of film and media studies. As president of the Society for Cinema Studies during the late '70s and early '80s, he helped shape the organization that is now known as the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.
He also was an advocate for the preservation of America's media heritage, serving as a member of the National Film Preservation Board and helping establish the Program in Moving Image Archiving and Preservation at New York University.
Sklar also served on the selection committee of the New York Film Festival for a number of years.
But films weren't his only passion.
A baseball fan, he was among the group of 11 friends who held the first Rotisserie League baseball player auction in 1980 at one of the members' apartments in New York City.
Author and journalist Daniel Okrent, who had been a student of Sklar's at the University of Michigan in the '60s, drafted the first rules and invited the various participants to join the league, which was named after La Rotisserie Francaise, the New York City restaurant where they first discussed the rules.
The success of the team owners in the league is based on the actual performances of the major league players whom they draft for their fantasy teams.
Today, Okrent told The Times, millions of people play versions of the original Rotisserie League Baseball.
For several years during the 1980s, Sklar and fellow founding member Glen Waggoner co-edited an annual "Rotisserie League Baseball" book, which Okrent described as "a grab bag of player ratings, strategic advice, rules variations and stupid jokes."
"He was a wonderful, dear man," said Okrent, adding that Sklar was "a forward-thinking scholar who recognized before others that who we are as a people has to do with the movies we watch."
Sklar was born Dec. 3, 1936, in New Brunswick, N.J. He moved from Highland Park, N.J., where his father was a high school teacher, to Long Beach when he was 9.
Sklar, whose older brother, Marty, is the former creative head of Walt Disney Imagineering, was editor of the school newspaper at Long Beach Polytechnic High School.
At Princeton University, he served as chairman of the editorial board of the Daily Princetonian. After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1958, he had stints on the rewrite desk in the Associated Press bureau in Newark and as a writer for the Los Angeles Times before doing graduate study at the University of Bonn from 1959-60.
Sklar received his doctorate from Harvard in 1965, with his dissertation becoming his first book two years later, "F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Last Laocoön."
Besides his brother Marty, Sklar is survived by his second wife, Adrienne Harris; two children, Leonard Sklar and Susan Sklar Friedman from his first marriage to Kathryn Kish Sklar; two stepchildren, Kate and Justin Tentler; and four grandchildren.
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