Charles Guggenheim, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker known for social, political and historical films, died Wednesday Oct. 9 of pancreatic cancer at Georgetown U. Hospital. He was 78.
Internationally noted Washington, D.C.-based filmmaker, considered by many to be a central figure in the evolution of the American docu, made more than 100 docs, was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and garnered Oscars four times during his prolific 50-year career.
He was also credited as being one of the first to use a documentary style for American presidential TV campaigns.
MPAA prez Jack Valenti told Variety “The Guggenheim style was marked and definitive. He understood very early on that you reach people through their hearts, not their heads. His political advertising had an emotional wallop to it that made it so effective.”
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) added, “Charlie was an outstanding artist who worked with film, and he was a dear friend who was always there when we needed him. He told the story of my brothers in his brilliant films, done for display in the Kennedy Library. He was indispensable in many of our election campaigns. He helped tell the story of America with his creative genius.”
A native of Cincinnati, Guggenheim served in the U.S. Army during World War II (1943-1946). After the war, he returned to college and earned his B.A. from the U. of Iowa in 1948.
His media career began in earnest during the early 1950s when he was a producer on a CBS children’s TV series “Fearless Fosdick.” He went on to serve as acting director for KETC Educational Communications in St. Louis. In 1954, he set up his own production company, Guggenheim Prods. In 1959 he produced and directed Steve McQueen starrer “The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery.”
During the Kennedy administration, he relocated to Washington, D.C., to work with George Stevens Jr. at the U.S. Information Agency, which was under the management of Edward R. Murrow.
In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Guggenheim directed numerous media campaigns including those for four presidential campaigns: Adlai Stevenson, 1956; Robert Kennedy, 1968; George McGovern, 1972; and Edward Kennedy, 1980. He also served as the media director for more than 75 U.S. senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns including those of Robert Kennedy, Pat Brown, Howard Metzenbaum and Walter Mondale.
For much of his lengthy career, he focused on long-format historical documentaries, many of which are on permanent display including ones in the Truman, Kennedy and Johnson presidential libraries as well as the Norton Simon Museum and the Ellis Island Museum.
Guggenheim’s four Oscars came for “Nine From Little Rock” (1964), “RFK Remembered” (1968), “The Johnstown Flood” (1989) and “A Time for Justice” (1994). His most recent Oscar nomination came in 1998 for “A Place in the Land.”
Guggenheim’s most recent film was “Berga: Soldiers of Another War.” A co-production with WNET in New York, which is slated to air on PBS in March, it reveals the untold story of 350 American GI’s captured by the Nazis during the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944 and, in disregard of the Geneva Convention, were forced into a slave labor camp in Berga, Germany, because they looked Jewish and had Jewish-sounding names.
He is survived by his wife, Marion Davis Streett; a daughter, film producer Grace; two sons, film and TV director Davis and freelance film associate Jonathan; and four grandchildren.