Documentary pioneer Robert Drew passes away

Director Robert Drew (pictured), the vérité pioneer behind such landmark docs as Primary and Crisis, has passed away at the age of 90, at his home in Connecticut.
July 30, 2014

Director Robert L. Drew (pictured), the vérité pioneer behind such landmark docs as Primary and Crisis, has passed away at the age of 90, at his home in Connecticut.

The filmmaker helped popularize direct cinema in the early 1960s, forming Drew Associates and hiring a team of filmmakers who would later become well-known in their own right, including D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, Terence Macartney-Filgate and the late Ricky Leacock.

In breakthrough doc Primary, Drew convinced JFK – then a young senator from Massachusetts – to allow himself to be filmed by the producer and his team, as the young political hopeful campaigned for the 1960 Democratic Presidential nomination in Wisconsin. The resulting film was the first in which sync sound camera could move freely to capture events as they were actually happening.

Among the other key titles in the Drew portfolio were 1963′s Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, 1966′s Storm Signal, 1971′s The Sun Ship Game, 1974′s On the Road with Duke Ellington, and 1986′s For Auction: An American Hero.


Primary (1960)

The latter film won the Dupont-Columbia Best Documentary award – one of a large number of prizes the filmmaker earned during his career, including a Cannes Film Festival Special Jury Prize, blue ribbons from the New York Film festival, the IDA Career Achievement Award, an Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, First Prizes from the Venice Film Festival, 19 Cine Golden Eagles, and the Flaherty Award.

In recent years, the filmmaker had been working on re-editing footage from his classic films on JFK and racing car driver Eddie Sachs, in a bid to make them accessible for a new audience.

In 2008 he released A President to Remember, which used footage from several of his Kennedy films, and at the time of his passing today (July 30), his entire collection of films is in the process of being preserved by the archives of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, of which he was a member.

In an interview with realscreen in 2011, Drew reflected on the progression of the non-fiction form. He expressed disappointment with the direction contemporary documentary was taking, saying that he preferred the classic vérité style. “Real films about real people are harder to do, but when they are done well they can be sublime,” he said.

robert drew editing "a president to remember"

Robert Drew editing “A President To Remember”

Before becoming a documentarian, Drew was a LIFE magazine correspondent and editor, as well as a former Second World War fighter pilot for the Allies.

He is survived by his three children, Thatcher, Lisa W., and Derek; and three grandchildren: Jonathan, Kimberly and Seth. He is also survived by his first wife, Ruth Faris Drew, his brother Frank M. Drew, brigadier general, U.S. Air Force, retired; and a sister, Mary Way Drew Greer.

Robert’s wife,  Anne Drew, passed away in 2012, at the age of 70. Jill Drew, his daughter-in-law, serves as general manager of Drew Associates, which is still active in distributing the company’s library of films, including those made by Anne.

A celebration of Robert Drew’s life will be held on Sunday (August 3) in Sharon, Connecticut. A memorial service will also be held in New York City at a later date.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.