Stanley Greenberg, 74; Writer Inaugurated Docudrama Genre


Stanley R. Greenberg, the meticulous writer who sparked the now-ubiquitous television genre of the docudrama in the early 1970s with his groundbreaking teleplays “Pueblo” and “The Missiles of October,” has died. He was 74.

Greenberg, who liked to call the form the “theater of fact,” died Sunday at his home in the Northern California community of Kensington. Irv Wilson, a producer and a close friend, said the cause of death was a brain tumor.

“If one could point to where the modern vogue for the factual drama, the so-called docudrama, emerged from,” former Times television columnist Cecil Smith wrote in 1979, “it would be Greenberg’s typewriter--specifically, his brilliant 1973 play, ‘Pueblo,’ followed ... by his searing drama of John Kennedy’s 13 fearful days: ‘The Missiles of October.’ Not only were both superb programs, which attracted enormous audiences, but both had a hard historical accuracy widely admired by scholars.”


“Pueblo,” the story of the capture of an American spy ship off North Korea, was originally written as a stage play produced by Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage Theater. After Greenberg converted the script for television, the production starring Hal Holbrook earned several Emmys and a Peabody Award.

“The Missiles of October,” about the Cuban missile crisis, which almost plunged the U.S. and the Soviet Union--and the world--into nuclear war in 1963, was also critically acclaimed.

In 1979, Greenberg presented another of his mammoth teleplays, the eight-hour “Blind Ambition,” based on John Dean’s book about how the Watergate conspiracy unraveled, toppling the Nixon White House. To gather material, Greenberg taped 60 hours of conversations with Dean and Dean’s wife, Maureen, in addition to devouring their respective books, “Blind Ambition” and “Mo.”

Actual historical names, dates and events were key to Greenberg’s “theater of fact,” but not enough. Perhaps even more important, he said, was “the element of morality ... so that we can understand our times and clarify our values.”

Greenberg often joked, after imitators began to flood television networks with docudrama scripts, that he had spawned a monster. But he nevertheless continued to champion the genre for its ability to carry out his personal commitment to social justice and political causes. He had worked with American Zionist groups to promote independence for Israel, marched in Washington with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to advocate civil rights, and was active in the antinuclear movement called SANE freeze.

“If the only purpose of historical drama is to record history, to be illustrated textbooks, then there is no reason to dramatize the material,” Greenberg told The Times in 1979. “Then it is better to do them as straight documentaries. But once you get into the human dimension, once you get into the idea of the individual as a hero who is bound by some kind of moral or ethical code, then you have to dramatize it.”


Born in Chicago, Greenberg served in the military during World War II and then attended Brown University on the GI Bill. By 1961, he was living in Gary, Ind., working as a press agent for Zionist groups when he became a fan of the new television series, “The Defenders.”

Greenberg was so moved by the quality and moral stance of the show about father-and-son lawyers that he wrote a script and mailed it to the show’s creator, Reginald Rose. Amazingly for the television business, Rose read the unsolicited offering and called Greenberg to say, “We’ll buy this one and any more that you can do.”

Greenberg became one of the primary writers for the series, which ran on CBS from 1961 through 1965.

His scripts earned an Emmy and an Edgar Allen Poe Citation from the Mystery Writers of America.

Although Greenberg is best known as a television writer, he also wrote the screenplays for two popular motion pictures, “Skyjacked,” alternately titled “Sky Terror,” starring Charlton Heston in 1972, and “Soylent Green” starring Heston and, in his last screen appearance, Edward G. Robinson, in 1973. “Soylent Green” earned a Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America for screenwriter Greenberg and Harry Harrison, who wrote the book on which it was based.

The writer is survived by his wife of 48 years, Tamara Robbin Greenberg; three daughters, Robin, Rachel and Ruthie; and six grandchildren.