Charles Guggenheim, 78; His Documentaries Won 4 Academy Awards


Charles Guggenheim, one of the country’s most honored and prolific documentary filmmakers, whose work earned four Academy Awards, has died. He was 78.

Guggenheim, a pioneer director of political campaign TV commercials and films who was media director for the presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson, Robert F. Kennedy, George McGovern and Edward M. Kennedy, died of pancreatic cancer Wednesday in Georgetown University Hospital in Washington.

Saturday Review movie critic Hollis Alpert once described Guggenheim as “probably the most accomplished maker of documentary films in the country.”

He began his five-decade career in film in 1952, when he produced TV political spots for Stevenson. He went on to direct and produce more than 100 documentaries on a broad range of subjects: from construction of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the refurbishing of the Statue of Liberty to remembering D-day and chronicling hate crimes in the United States.

Guggenheim, who received awards in major international film competitions and a George Foster Peabody Award in 1951 for a live production on the Bronx Zoo, received 12 Academy Award nominations.


He won his four Oscars for “Nine From Little Rock” (1964), about the 1957 school integration crisis; “Robert Kennedy Remembered” (1968), a film biography completed in six weeks after Kennedy’s assassination in June 1968 and shown at the Democratic National Convention; “The Johnstown Flood” (1989), which commemorated the 19th century disaster in Pennsylvania that killed 2,300; and “A Time for Justice” (1994), the story of the civil rights movement.

Eight of Guggenheim’s documentaries are on permanent exhibit at various institutions, including the Ellis Island Museum in New York, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena and the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, as well as the presidential libraries of Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

“He helped tell the story of America with his genius,” Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in a statement.

Beginning with the 1956 presidential campaign of Stevenson, Guggenheim directed media campaigns into the 1980s for more than 75 congressional, gubernatorial and presidential candidates.

“He was one of the first in it, and I think he set the style for it too,” Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America and a close friend of Guggenheim, told The Times.

“He recognized early on, before almost any political filmmakers, that people vote viscerally, not intellectually,” Valenti said. “So he tried to appeal to the emotions--the heart rather than the head. And that’s what made his campaign stuff not only unique but powerful.”

Guggenheim took the same approach with his documentaries, Valenti said.

“He took events which had an emotional impact, and then he brought them to full display on the screen, and that’s what I think was his great power.”

Two years ago, Guggenheim received the International Documentary Assn.'s Career Achievement Award.

Guggenheim was born and raised in Cincinnati, where his father and grandfather were well-to-do furniture merchants.

But Guggenheim’s privileged childhood was unhappily marked by a then-little known learning disorder: He had dyslexia, and didn’t learn to read until the fourth grade. Considered slow, he endured the taunts of classmates.

“I didn’t think I was smart,” he told the Washington Post in 1996. But without his childhood anguish and the sensitivities it gave rise to, he said, he may have wound up “selling furniture in Cincinnati” instead of becoming a filmmaker.

After studying agriculture for a year at Colorado A&M;, he was drafted into the Army in 1943. After World War II, he studied contemporary European history and rhetorical criticism at the University of Iowa, then moved to New York intent on getting into broadcasting.

His first job, at CBS radio, was running errands for humorist Herb Shriner. But by 1952, he was producing “Fearless Fosdick,” an NBC children’s TV series featuring marionettes, on which, Guggenheim once said, he “began to learn the business from the top down.”

In 1954, after working at public broadcasting stations in Ames, Iowa, and St. Louis, Guggenheim launched Guggenheim Productions, which he moved from St. Louis to Washington, D.C., in 1965.

Guggenheim produced and directed his first feature movie in 1959: “The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery,” a modest crime caper starring Steve McQueen.

“I’ve made a few feature films and more than a few political commercials,” Guggenheim said at the time of his Career Achievement Award, “but mainly I’ve stuck with documentaries, because that’s what feels right to me.”

In the early 1960s, Guggenheim began making documentaries for the U.S. Information Agency under motion picture service director George Stevens Jr.

“I’d say as a documentary filmmaker, Charlie had more strings in his bow than anyone of our time,” Stevens told The Times on Wednesday, listing several of Guggenheim’s memorable and diverse films.

“The other thing is he had, in everything he did, a level of taste and integrity that was at the very top,” said Stevens.

Guggenheim battled with cancer the last seven months, but until a month ago he continued working to finish the movie he had begun more than two years ago

“Berga: Soldiers of Another War,” a co-production with WNET-TV in New York, is the first film told and narrated in Guggenheim’s own words.

It is the untold story of 350 American soldiers who were captured during the Battle of the Bulge and, because they were Jewish or looked Jewish, were sent to a brutal slave labor camp in Berga, Germany.

Some of them were from Guggenheim’s infantry division, but Guggenheim, who was Jewish, had been hospitalized with a foot infection when his fellow soldiers left for Europe and the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. In what he called “an act of fate,” he didn’t go overseas.

“I think he was haunted by that act of fate a long time, and it was one of the things that propelled him to make that movie,” said Guggenheim’s son, Davis, a director whose television credits include “NYPD Blue” and “ER” and who is married to actress Elisabeth Shue. “Berga: Soldiers of Another War” will air nationally next spring.

“It’s a brave and wonderful film,” said Valenti, who has seen it. “It’s a miracle he was able to get through it, but I just think he willed himself not to take to a bed until that movie was finished, and that’s exactly what he did.”

In addition to his son, Guggenheim is survived by his wife, Marion; his daughter, Grace of Washington, D.C., who worked with her father as a producer; another son, Jonathan of Los Angeles, a screenwriter; and four grandchildren.

A memorial service in Washington is pending.