Documentarian Richard Leacock dies at 89

Was pioneer of cinema verite

Richard Leacock, a pioneer of cinema verite documentary filmmaking and direct cinema, died March 23 in Paris. He was 89.

Leacock was born in the U.K. but grew up on his father’s banana farm in the Canary Islands. He was sent to boarding school, and it was there, at 14, that he was inspired to make his first documentary film, “Canary Bananas,” to show his friends what it was like on the banana farm.

In 1939, Leacock went to Harvard and majored in physics in order to master the technology of filmmaking. He left in 1942 to become a combat cameraman for the U.S. Army, lensing for three years in Burma and China. This work inspired him to shoot films in the cinema verite style he helped pioneer.

The first film he wrote, directed and edited himself was the seminal “Toby and the Tall Corn,” about a traveling tent theater in Missouri, in 1954. The film aired on TV as part of the cultural program “Omnibus.” His next film was “Jazz Dance.”

After watching “Toby and the Tall Corn,” docu helmer D.A. Pennebaker formed a partnership with Leacock in 1960. They and others were seeking a way to make films with highly mobile equipment to facilitate observation. Robert Drew’s “Primary,” which followed John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in Wisconsin against Hubert Humphrey, was considered a significant milestone in this regard; Leacock was the cinematographer.

Pennebaker and Leacock worked on documentaries including “A Stravinsky Portrait” and the famous “Monterey Pop” during the 1960s.

In 1968 Leacock helped found a small but influential film school at MIT with Ed Pincus.

He retired to Paris in 1989.

Leacock put his more than 40 films and shorts together in a collection that will be released next year as a book and DVB (digital videobook) combination.