Filmmaker had to return Oscar

Times Staff Writer

Alex Grasshoff, a television and film director who won an Academy Award in 1969 for best feature-length documentary and then made Oscar history when he and his fellow producer had to return their golden statuettes on a technicality, has died. He was 79.

Grasshoff died April 5 at his home in Los Angeles of complications from bypass surgery on a leg, said his wife, Madilyn Clark Grasshoff.

A USC film school graduate who launched his career as an editor at Paramount in the 1950s, Grasshoff and fellow producer Robert Cohn were elated when their film, “Young Americans,” won the Oscar for best feature documentary at the Academy Awards ceremony in April 1969.


Grasshoff also wrote and directed the film, which chronicled the adventures of the Young Americans singing group on its cross-country summer tour by bus.

“We slept with the Oscar the first night,” Madilyn Clark Grasshoff recalled with a laugh last week. “It was very, very exciting, my gosh.”

But then came the big letdown for the two producers when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences discovered a few weeks later that “Young Americans” had first been shown in a theater in October 1967, which made it ineligible for a 1968 award in the documentary category.

Grasshoff’s wife said Academy President Gregory Peck personally called her husband and Cohn, “and they had a big to-do over it.”

“What happened was, it was a trial sneak preview in some little town in, like, North Carolina,” she said. “I don’t know why they didn’t fight it, because it was not released.”

Academy Awards historian Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies, said Friday that it was “the first time that an Academy Award has been presented to somebody and celebrated and days after has been collected and taken back.

“I always point it out because it’s so unusual,” Osborne said. “But it’s also a great cautionary tale for everybody, because even if you win an Oscar, you can’t be totally sure you’re going to keep it.

“It’s also a great indication that the academy doesn’t take any of these things casually, and they really follow through to make sure the rules are followed.”

On May 8, 1969, the first runner-up, “Journey Into Self,” was declared the official Oscar winner for best feature documentary.

“Of course, it was a major disappointment,” Madilyn Clark Grasshoff said. For her husband, having reached the film-industry pinnacle of earning an Academy Award -- and then not -- was “painful.”

Over the years, she said, her husband would talk about winning the Oscar “because that was quite a feat, quite a feather in his cap, even though they took it away.”

Grasshoff was no stranger to the Oscar ceremony.

“The Really Big Family,” a 1966 documentary for David L. Wolper Productions that he directed and produced about a family with 18 children, received an Academy Award nomination for best feature documentary.

And “Journey to the Outer Limits,” a 1973 documentary he directed for the National Geographic Society and Wolper Productions, was nominated for an Oscar in the same category. The film, chronicling the adventures of a group of teenagers as they attempt to scale a peak in the Peruvian Andes, aired on ABC-TV in 1974. As producer, Grasshoff took home an Emmy Award when it won for “documentary program achievement.”

Grasshoff spent most of the 1960s making documentaries, including for the documentary TV series “Hollywood and the Stars” and “National Geographic Specials.”

“He was very good,” Wolper said, noting that Grasshoff was among a group of about 20 documentary filmmakers who worked for him at the time. “Everybody had their own style, and he had his own style; it was a little quirky and unusual, but it was always good.”

Grasshoff directed a handful of feature films, including “The Jailbreakers,” “The Last Dinosaur” and “Smokey and the Good Time Outlaws.”

And for television in the 1970s and early ‘80s, he directed episodes of such series as “Toma,” “The Rookies,” “The Rockford Files,” “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” and “CHiPs” and segments of the “ABC Afterschool Specials.”

“The Wave,” a one-hour 1981 drama for ABC that he directed about a high school teacher’s experiment in discipline, won a Peabody Award and an Emmy for outstanding children’s program.

Born in Boston on Dec. 10, 1928, Grasshoff attended what was then Tufts College and USC, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in cinema in 1953.

He launched his Hollywood career in the mail room at Paramount in 1951 and became an assistant editor and then an editor at the studio.

He met his wife of 38 years -- she is the longtime owner of Madilyn Clark Studios, a rehearsal facility in North Hollywood -- at “The Ed Sullivan Show,” where she was a backup dancer and he was accompanying the Young Americans, who were performing.

In addition to his wife, Grasshoff is survived by two sisters, Yrsa Grasshoff and Edith Rand.

A memorial service for friends at the Grasshoff home is pending.