Telluride Film Festival co-founder Tom Luddy dies at 79

A man stands on a stage in a spotlight, gesturing with one arm raised
Telluride Film Festival co-founder Tom Luddy.
(Telluride Film Festival)

Tom Luddy, who co-founded the Telluride Film Festival as part of a long and varied career in the film industry, has died at age 79.

Luddy died Monday in Berkeley following a long illness, according to a representative for the Telluride Film Festival.

Together with Bill and Stella Pence and James Card, Luddy founded the Telluride Film Festival in 1974. Over the past five decades, the intimate, remote gathering, set in a picturesque box canyon in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, has grown into one of the world’s most important and beloved film festivals, a pivotal stop on the awards season calendar that has played host to eight of the last 10 best picture Oscar winners.


“The world has lost a rare ingredient that we’ll all be searching for, for some time,” Julie Huntsinger, the festival’s executive director, said in a statement. “He called Telluride a labor of love for a very long time. We’re so much better off because of him and that labor. We at the Festival owe it to him to carry on his legacy; his commitment to and love for cinema, above all.”

Driven by his lifelong passion for film, Luddy’s career touched numerous aspects of the film business, including production, restoration, distribution and exhibition. He had a longtime association with filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, working as part of Zoetrope Studios, and also was instrumental in the careers of filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Jean-Luc Godard, Paul Schrader and Werner Herzog.

Though he maintained a low public profile, Luddy’s stature as an archivist, film scholar and advocate for bold, adventurous filmmaking made him a powerful behind-the-scenes influence on international and independent cinema.

“He was one of these people who had seen virtually every important film, and a lot of unimportant films, which had ever been made,” Steve Wasserman, a longtime friend of Luddy’s and publisher of Heyday Books who covered the Telluride Film Festival for The Times in 2000, told The Times Tuesday.

“His historical knowledge and his near photographic memory for movies, for scenes, was legendary and very impressive,” Wasserman added. “And not only that but his extraordinary Rolodex. You would ask him, ‘Do you happen to have the phone number of Werner Herzog?’ And he could just reel off scores of the most private phone numbers of people scattered all over the world.”

A man stands outside in the sun wearing a baseball hat, dark glasses and dark clothing.
Telluride Film Festival co-founder Tom Luddy.
(Pamela Gentile / Telluride Film Festival )

Born June 4, 1943, in New York City, Luddy cut his teeth in film as a student at UC Berkeley in the early 1960s, serving as program director of several student film societies. After graduation, he worked as director of national distribution at Brandon Films and then as program director of the Telegraph Repertory Cinema in Berkeley.

In 1968, Luddy curated a retrospective of Godard’s films for the Pacific Film Archive. The archive hired Luddy as its program director and curator of film, a role that involved organizing more than 900 programs each year, including the first American screening of Herzog’s 1972 film “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.”

Having befriended Coppola and George Lucas, Luddy began working with their production company, American Zoetrope, in 1979 and was instrumental in the company’s backing of Akira Kurosawa’s 1980 film “Kagemusha.” During his time at Zoetrope, Luddy supervised a revival of Abel Gance’s 1927 epic “Napoleon,” which played around the world, among numerous other projects in support of foreign and archival films.


As a 1984 New York Times profile of Luddy noted, “The measure of Mr. Luddy’s influence may be gauged from the fact that, prior to ‘The Godfather,’ he showed Thomas Ince’s ‘Italian’ to Mr. Coppola; Fellini’s ‘I Vitelloni’ to Lucas before ‘American Graffiti,’ and Kurosawa’s ‘Hidden Fortress’ to Lucas before ‘Star Wars.’ ”

In 1985, Luddy, along with Mata Yamamoto, produced Schrader’s film “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.” He served as executive producer on author Norman Mailer’s 1987 adaptation of his novel “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” and produced Barbet Schroeder‘s 1987 drama “Barfly.” Other producing credits include Agnieszka Holland‘s 1993 film “The Secret Garden” and Gregory Nava‘s 1995 drama “Mi Familia.”

In addition to his work with the Telluride Film Festival, Luddy served at various times on the New York Film Festival’s selection committee, on the board of the San Francisco Film Festival and as a jury member at film festivals in Moscow, Berlin and Cannes.

Away from the screen, Luddy played a key role in the 1971 opening of then-girlfriend Alice Waters’ famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, conceiving the name as an homage to French filmmaker Marcel Pagnol.

Wherever he went, Luddy forged personal connections to help further the cause of film.

“He had the gift of friendship,” Wasserman said, “introducing one person to another and knowing exactly the moment to withdraw in the hope that the two people would not only like each other but perhaps would go on to collaborate and create things together.”

Luddy is survived by his wife, Monique Montgomery; his siblings Brian Luddy, James Luddy, David Luddy and Jeanne Van Duzer; nephews Stevens and Will Van Duzer; and nieces Deirdre Pino, Megan Archer and Caroline Van Duzer.


Times staff writer Mark Olsen contributed to this report.