Robert Guenette, an Emmy Award-winning documentarian who pioneered depicting great events in history as if they had been filmed by modern newsreel cameras with productions such as “They’ve Killed President Lincoln” and “The Crucifixion of Jesus,” has died. He was 68.
Guenette, co-founder of the International Documentary Assn. and the Los Angeles Media & Education Center, died of brain cancer Friday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
During his 50-year career as an editor, writer, director and producer, Guenette made hundreds of hours of documentaries that have appeared on the three major networks, PBS, HBO, Showtime and in syndication.
He won two New York-area Emmy Awards for writing and producing “Faulkner’s Mississippi,” a 1965 documentary narrated by Montgomery Clift.
He produced “Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?” a 1974 investigation into the existence of the Loch Ness monster, the Abominable Snowman and Bigfoot. Narrated by Rod Serling, the show remains the highest-rated documentary in television history.
He produced “Victory at Entebbe!” a star-studded 1976 dramatization of the daring Israeli commando raid and rescue of Jewish hostages from Arab terrorists in Uganda. It aired as a TV movie on ABC five months after the rescue and was later released theatrically outside the United States, becoming what is said to be the first full-length feature film for theatrical release that was shot on videotape.
In 1985, he produced, with Bill Graham, the first outdoor rock concert in the Soviet Union, “A Rock ‘n’ Roll Summit,” for Showtime.
Guenette produced and co-wrote the landmark “They’ve Killed President Lincoln,” which aired on NBC in 1971 and which earned him and co-writer Theodore H. Strauss an Emmy for outstanding achievement in cultural documentary programming.
The documentary marked the first of many that Guenette produced for David L. Wolper’s production company.
Wolper told The Times this week that, after a decade of making documentaries, “we were running out of stock footage to make shows and I said, ‘Why don’t we make a show where there wasn’t any stock footage?’ ”
Guenette took the idea of making a traditional documentary by presenting history as it might have been seen if cameras had been available and “brought it to fruition” with “They’ve Killed President Lincoln,” Wolper said. “He created a way to do it properly, and we did a whole series of those shows.”
Under the umbrella title “Appointment with Destiny,” Wolper’s company made seven one-hour documentaries that aired on CBS. Guenette produced four of them: “The Crucifixion of Jesus,” “The Plot to Murder Hitler,” “Cortez and Montezuma: Conquest of an Empire” and “Peary’s Race to the North Pole.”
“We would not film anything unless a camera could have been there,” said Wolper, adding that “we dirtied up the film so it didn’t look like it was brand new. It looked like a newsreel.”
When John Wilkes Booth shoots Lincoln in “They’ve Killed President Lincoln,” Wolper said, it was filmed as if a newsreel crew had been standing right outside the presidential box at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.
“They hear the shot, you see the camera running in, and the camera whips up and sees Booth” jumping down to the stage, he said. The camera then follows Lincoln’s body as it is carried across the street and interviews are conducted with bystanders.
As a producer, Wolper said, Guenette “knew exactly what he was doing, and he didn’t waste any time: He did the work, he did it terrifically, and he did it on time and on budget.”
Born in Holyoke, Mass., on Jan. 12, 1935, Guenette left home at 16 and traveled by bus to New York City to become an actor. Instead, he joined what he called “the 16-millimeter explosion.”
Working his way up from gofer to assistant editor, he became a film editor for the CBS TV series “Conquest” and “Omnibus.” He later was director and associate producer for NBC’s “White Paper” and “The DuPont Show of the Month” series.
As a network news producer for CBS in 1962, he directed and was associate producer for “Our War in Vietnam,” an early look at U.S. involvement in the escalating war in Southeast Asia.
In 1994, Guenette and Robert Leeburg co-founded the nonprofit Los Angeles Media & Education Center, to help bring the diverse population of Los Angeles together through the arts.
“It was, for him, about giving back to the community,” Leeburg said Tuesday.
In 2001, Guenette received the International Documentary Assn. Pioneer Award for Distinguished Lifetime Service to the Documentary Community.
Guenette’s wife, Frances, who served as vice president of Robert Guenette Productions, died in 1994.
In addition to Leeburg, Guenette’s longtime partner and colleague, he is survived by his son, Mark D. Guenette; and his brothers and sisters, Sheila Kurtz and Gary, Terry, Bruce and Sharon Atwell.
A public celebration of Guenette’s life will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at 1551 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles.