Robert M. Young, Filmmaker Who Indulged His Wanderlust, Dies at 99


Robert M. Young, an eclectic director whose documentary subjects included civil rights lunch counter sit-ins and sharks, and whose feature films included one about a Mexican American farmer who kills a Texas lawman and one about a woman who takes revenge on her attacker, died on Feb. 4 in Los Angeles. He was 99.

The death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his son Andrew.

In an interview with the Directors Guild of America in 2005, Mr. Young recalled what attracted him to filmmaking.

“I wanted to be in life,” he said. “I wanted to be having adventures, I wanted to be living in the world.”

He more than fulfilled that ambition.

In the 1950s, he created educational films with two partners, most notably “Secrets of the Reef” (1956), an underwater documentary made at Marineland Studios in Florida and at a reef near the Bahamas that portrayed the life cycles of octopuses, sea horses, lobsters, jellyfish and manta rays.

In 1960, he was hired by NBC News for its new documentary series, “White Paper.” That year he directed “Sit-In,” about the Black college students whose protests led to the desegregation of lunch counters in downtown Nashville. The next year he worked on a report about the Angolan war for independence against Portugal, for which he walked hundreds of miles with Angolan rebels. The Portuguese government was unhappy with the report.

“They lodged a formal protest,” Mr. Young told American Film magazine in 1982, “and said if I ever went to Portugal, I’d be put on trial.”

A few days before the program aired, he said, NBC forced him to cut footage of the fragments of two American-made napalm bombs that had been dropped on Angolans.

His final project for “White Paper” was about a poor family, the Capras, living in a slum in Palermo, Sicily. But it was pulled in May 1962 by NBC a few days before it was to air. The issue was evidently editorial liberties taken by Mr. Young and his co-producer, Michael Roemer, including a decision to stage a scene in which the central character appeared to be giving birth, which the network said violated its journalistic standards.

Mr. Young said that he had staged the scene because he was leaving Italy before the woman actually gave birth; his solution was to add a disclaimer. He refused NBC’s demands to make changes and was fired.

Mr. Young believed that NBC destroyed the negative, but someone surreptitiously made copies, which were shown at film schools and festivals. His son Andrew and Andrew’s wife, Susan Todd, produced an updated documentary, “Children of Fate: Life and Death in a Sicilian Family” (1993), about four generations of Capras, which intercut images from his father’s film.

Mr. Young acted further on his cinematic wanderlust with a documentary series for the National Film Board of Canada about the lives of the Indigenous Netsilik people in the bleak land that is now called the Nunavut Territory.

Mr. Young was one of several cameramen on the 24-part series and the director of “The Eskimo: Fight for Life,” which he shot on the sea ice at a Netsilik winter camp over several weeks. It won an Emmy Award after being shown on CBS in 1970.

“Earlier filmmakers of Eskimo life had used zoom lenses and tripods,” Mr. Young told American Film. “They were trying to be anthropologists and stayed back. What they got were profiles. But when a man looked at his wife, I wanted to see his face and her face. I’d shoot close. I used the cameras the way the Eskimos used the harpoon.”

Robert Milton Young was born on Nov. 22, 1924, in the Bronx. His father, Al, was a film editor who in the 1920s helped start DuArt Film Laboratories, which processed and printed feature films, documentaries, newsreels, television news footage and commercials. His mother, Ann (Sperber) Young, managed the household.

At his father’s urging, Bob studied chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to prepare him for a career at DuArt. He entered M.I.T. at 16, but he didn’t like his classes and dropped out in late 1942, during his sophomore year, to enlist in the Navy. He joined the photographic unit and filmed behind the lines over two years in New Guinea and the Philippines.

After his discharge, Mr. Young resumed his education, at Harvard, where he studied English literature and made his first film — about a turtle crossing a road. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1949.

Mr. Young began working in feature films in 1964 as the cinematographer for “Nothing but a Man,” directed by Mr. Roemer, about a Black couple (Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln) dealing with racism in the Deep South.

In 1977, after working on several National Geographic specials, he directed “Short Eyes,” a prison drama adapted from Miguel Piñero’s play, and “Alambrista!,” the fictional story of a Mexican man who illegally crosses the United States border to earn money to support his wife and infant daughter.

John J. O’Connor of The New York Times praised Mr. Young’s use of documentary techniques to convey the frustrations his protagonist encounters in his pursuit of a better life. “Mr. Young,” he wrote, “captured, with stunning freshness, an old, old story of almost unbearable pain.”

“Alambrista!” won the Golden Camera award for best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival.

Edward James Olmos, who had a small part in “Alambrista!,” was a producer and the star of “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” (1982). He hired Mr. Young to direct the film, which was based on the true story of a farmhand on the run from a manhunt in 1901 after killing a sheriff in Gonzales, Texas.

“Bob Young to me is obviously one of the finest American filmmakers, if not the finest, that we’ve ever had,” Mr. Olmos wrote in A.Frame, the digital publication of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in 2019. “But we don’t all know that.”

“The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2022. “Alambrista!” was added in 2023.

Among Mr. Young’s other films were “Dominick and Eugene” (1988), starring Ray Liotta and Thomas Hulce as fraternal twins with different mental capacities; “Triumph of the Spirit” (1989), about a Greek Jewish boxer (played by Willem Dafoe) who fights in matches at Auschwitz, where the movie was filmed, for the amusement of his Nazi captors; and “Extremities” (1986), which starred Farrah Fawcett as a woman who thwarts a rapist’s attack and exacts revenge on him.

After a screening of “Extremities,” Mr. Young recalled in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, he saw a woman in the audience crying. She was a victim of sexual assault, she told him angrily, adding: “This is not life. In life, the woman doesn’t get away.”

“I’m not interested in just mirroring life,” he said he told her. “I’m interested in taking people into an experience that can ultimately be enlightening or revealing.”

He told the woman about his daughter Melissa Young, who had been sexually assaulted for three and a half hours in an apartment in Greenwich Village. She was unable to fight back, he said, but she told him that “she was very proud of herself to survive.”

In addition to his son Andrew, Mr. Young is survived by his daughter Melissa and another daughter, Sarah Young, both from his marriage to Ellan Ulery, which ended in divorce in 1975; his wife, Lili (Partridge) Young, whom he married that same year; their sons, Nick and Zack; and nine grandchildren. His brother, Irwin, who died in 2022, ran DuArt after their father’s death in 1960 and helped nurture young filmmakers like Spike Lee and Michael Moore.

In 1965, Mr. Young and Peter Gimbel, an heir to the Gimbels department store chain, plunged into the waters off eastern Long Island to film a short documentary, “In the World of Sharks.”

They and a third diver descended in a cage that Mr. Gimbel had designed. Mr. Young then swam freely outside the cage with a 35-millimeter camera, capturing remarkable close-ups of a school of swirling 12-foot-long great blue sharks, one of which tried to bite him.

“It could have been a macho film but isn’t,” Mr. Young told American Film. One shark hit his camera with its eyeball. Another time, he tried to surface and bumped his head against a shark’s belly.

“It felt like hitting a water bed,” he said.

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