Leon Gast, the Oscar-winning director behind the acclaimed boxing documentary When We Were Kings, has passed away at the age of 85.
News of Gast’s passing was first shared by close friend and co-founder of the Woodstock Film Festival, Meira Blaustein, via a Facebook posting, in which she said that he had passed on the morning of March 8, adding: “He was a giant of a filmmaker, an absolute joy of a human being, and a very dear and beloved friend.”
Gast’s Oscar-winning film, produced by his former lawyer David Sonenberg, detailed the story of what was known as “The Rumble in the Jungle” — the heavyweight title boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. The film itself was a lesson in perseverance and serendipity: Gast was originally in the area to film a documentary about a music festival, but when funding for the project evaporated through myriad circumstances, the fledgling filmmaker decided to focus on the boxing match, and shot some 300,000 feet of film. But the project’s completion was held up by legal challenges from boxing promoter Don King among others. In the interim, Gast helmed docs on the Grateful Dead (The Grateful Dead Movie, co-directed with Dead guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia) and the Hell’s Angels (Hell’s Angels Forever, co-directed with Richard Chase and Kevin Keating).
Following his Oscar win in 1997, Gast executive produced Bill Siegel’s Emmy-winning The Trials of Muhammad Ali for PBS in 2013, while also helming 2010′s Smash His Camera, documenting paparazzi through the work of Ron Galella. That film took the documentary grand jury prize at Sundance, and also earned Gast a documentary directing award at that year’s festival.
For his last film, 2014′s Manny, he returned to the ring, capturing the story of Manny Pacquiao, hailed as one of the greatest boxers of all time and currently serving as a senator in the Philippines.
Gast is survived by his wife, Geri.
(Image: The Woodstock Film Festival)