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Marvin Chomsky, Emmy-winning ‘Roots’ and ‘Star Trek’ director, dies

Director Marvin Chomsky looks through a camera lens.
Director Marvin Chomsky during the filming of “Inside the Third Reich.” The go-to director died March 28 in Santa Monica, his son said. He was 92.
(ABC / Everett Collection)

Marvin Chomsky, a prolific Hollywood director who helped make the influential miniseries “Roots” and won Emmys for sobering television dramas on the Holocaust, the Attica prisoner uprising and early-day Russian imperialism, has died at 92.

A go-to director for years, Chomsky died March 28 in Santa Monica, his son Peter said. No cause was given.

Chomsky had a long list of directing credits, from some of the first “Star Trek” episodes to the torn-from-the-headlines drama “Billionaire Boys Club,” the real-life story of a Los Angeles investing and social club that targeted young, inexperienced men from wealthy families.

But it was in directing many of the episodes of “Roots,” the sweeping story of a Black family’s struggles from enslavement to post-Civil War life, that he sensed he was helping make a change at a time when Hollywood was still dominated by white male actors, with few opportunities beyond stereotypical roles for Black actors.

“We had just come through the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War was over and the country was bleeding after Watergate,” he told The Times in 1982. “This story was something about a wretched tear in the American fabric that no one was willing to face openly. It came at a time when the populace was finally ready to accept the wrongs of the past and say we really did this, this is our history.”

“Roots,” an eight-part drama that aired in 1977, won nine Emmys and helped propel long-form storytelling on television, where even the most ambitious story had typically been squeezed into a one-hour format. It also helped change racial attitudes in Hollywood and propelled careers for actors such as Louis Gossett Jr. and Ben Vereen.

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Many of Chomsky’s projects, including “Holocaust,” “Inside the Third Reich” and “Attica,” were pulled from world events that he said “never should have happened.”

“The point I wanted to show with all of this was that people who seem perfectly normal are capable of committing hideous atrocities,” he said.

Chomsky was born in New York in 1929 and got his start as a set decorator, before taking on directing assignment for prime-time shows such as “The Wild, Wild West,” “Gunsmoke,” “Mission: Impossible” and “Hawaii Five-O.” He also directed many episodes of the original “Star Trek” series, which struggled for viewership but won over critics.

He was nominated for eight Emmys during his career, winning with “Peter the Great,” “Inside the Third Reich,” “Attica” and “Holocaust.” His final film was the 1995 television movie “Catherine the Great,” starring Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Chomsky is survived by three sons, David, Eric and Peter, a producer whose credits include “Fargo” and “Dead to Me,” and a granddaughter, Liliana.


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