Bud Greenspan dies at 84; Olympic documentarian

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Bud Greenspan, award-winning filmmaker, writer, character and, arguably, the world’s No. 1 fan of the Olympics, has died. He was 84.

Greenspan died Christmas Day at his home in New York City, his companion Nancy Beffa said. He had Parkinson’s disease.

Easily recognizable by his trademarks — big, black-rimmed glasses pushed up on his shaven head, a pipe and, depending on the season, a beige corduroy sport coat over a black turtleneck or a safari jacket over a polo shirt — Greenspan earned eight Emmy awards, a Peabody and generally high praise for his Cappy Productions films, most of which were Olympic documentaries. He was the recipient of an Olympic Order, the International Olympic Committee’s highest award, and in 2004 was inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame as a special contributor.

Greenspan viewed the Games not necessarily as they were, more as he thought they should be. “They’re two weeks of love,” he told ESPN in 2002. “It’s like Never Never Land. Like Robin Hood shooting his arrow through the other guy’s arrow. It’s a privilege to be associated with the best in the world. ... They bring things forward that they don’t ordinarily do.”

Starting with the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, Greenspan was the official Olympic filmmaker seven times, also recording Summer Games in 1996 in Atlanta and in 2000 in Sydney and Winter Olympics in 1988 at Calgary, 1994 at Lillehammer, 1998 at Nagano and 2002 at Salt Lake City. And when he wasn’t the official documentarian, he acted, with his crew, as an independent filmmaker, which suited Greenspan just fine. Because if there was one thing he reveled in, it was being independent.

Whatever else might be going on at any Olympic gathering — officiating scandals, cheating, doping, nationalistic and egotistic displays — Greenspan kept his lens focused on the athletes and the competition, looking for and presenting film stories that struck a chord with viewers, whether sports fans or casual watchers. He prided himself on skipping over what was being presented on network TV coverage in favor of tales of courage, valor and resilience, usually presented in stark simplicity.

“I’m a storyteller,” he said often. “We like to hear people say, ‘Gee, I didn’t know that.’ ”

Brushing aside criticism that his work was journalistically incomplete and politically naive, his usual response was, “I choose to concentrate 100% of my time on the 90% of the Olympics that is good. ... I find the goodness in people, and I present them as people first and athletes second.”

He was especially partial to stories involving athletic perseverance, citing a pair of runners as prime examples, Tanzanian marathoner John Steven Aquari and British distance runner Dave Moorcroft.

In the 1968 Mexico City Games, Aquari was the last man to finish the long race, hobbling into the darkening stadium more than an hour after the early finishers, his right leg bleeding and hastily bandaged, completing the marathon to the cheers of what few fans were left. Asked later by Greenspan why he had continued running, Aquari answered, “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race. My country sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”

Moorcroft entered the 5,000-meter run in Los Angeles as the world-record holder, but also having recently suffered a stress fracture in his leg, a bout with hepatitis and a pelvic problem that interfered with his stride. He quickly fell off the pace and into last place, sprinting in ungainly fashion to keep from being lapped as the race ended. When Greenspan asked Moorcroft later why he had not quit, the runner replied, “Once you quit, it’s easy to do it again. I did not want to set a precedent for the future.”

Greenspan’s opinion? “People don’t pay enough attention to those who come in fourth, seventh or 10th. It amazes me every time that someone can lose by a fraction of a second and no one pays attention to them.”

Greenspan knew firsthand about perseverance. Born Jonah J. Greenspan on Sept. 18, 1926, in New York City, he grew up with a lisp, which followed him into adolescence. Yet he chose to go into radio. He cured himself of the lisp and, by the time he was 21, having graduated from New York University, was sports director at WMGM, then the biggest sports station in the country. He also worked in the print medium as a sportswriter and in TV, first as a reporter, later as a producer.

It was at the opera, however, that Greenspan developed his Olympic interest. Working occasionally as a non-singing extra at the Metropolitan Opera, he learned that a fellow extra, John Davis, had won a gold medal in weightlifting at the London Games in 1948. When Davis went to Helsinki to defend his title in 1952, Greenspan was there as a sportswriter and, taking a chance, hired a Finnish crew to film Davis’ winning effort.

After spending $5,000 to produce a 15-minute short, he went looking for a buyer. Coincidentally, the U.S. State Department was looking for examples of successful African Americans to counter Soviet propaganda during the Korean War about American racism, and it bought Greenspan’s film for $35,000. “I thought, ‘This is a good business,’ ” Greenspan told the Los Angeles Times in 1999.

By the 1960s, Greenspan was peddling feature-length sports films, and in 1967, with his wife and business partner, Constance Anne “Cappy” Petrash, he formed his Cappy Productions company. “Cappy was a non-fan, but her outlook was perfect for the kind of thing we were doing,” Greenspan told the Wall Street Journal in 1988. “She’d ask our subjects what books they read or whether they cooked, and the answers usually turned out to be wonderful. They gave our work a dimension others lacked.”

Cappy died of cancer in 1983, a year before Greenspan’s first Games as official documentarian. Recalled Greenspan, “We didn’t have children and she would say, ‘The films will be our kids. ... They’ll live long after we’re here.’ And that, in a sense, is immortality, and that is exactly what I think we’re here for, to leave something for this generation and generations not yet born.”

Greenspan later hired Beffa to work with him, and she eventually became his business partner and companion.

Besides Beffa, he is survived by a sister, Sarah Rosenberg.

Kupper is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer.