Mel Stuart, who directed 1971 children’s classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” among more than 180 producing or helming efforts in a career that spanned more than five decades, died Thursday, Aug. 9, from cancer in Los Angeles. He was 83.
The Stuart-helmed “Willy Wonka,” adapted by Roald Dahl from his children’s book and starring Gene Wilder, has been beloved by generations of both kids and adults. (Tim Burton’s 2005 remake was compared unfavorably to it.)
Stuart’s feature films also include the 1969 travel comedy “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium,” starring Suzanne Pleshette and Ian McShane, but many of his most notable efforts were documentaries or prestigious films for television such as the Emmy winner “Bill,” starring Mickey Rooney.
He directed and produced Theodore H. White’s influential documentary “The Making of the President 1960,” which won four Emmys in 1964, including program of the year. (Stuart and White followed up with “The Making of the President 1964” and “The Making of the President 1968.”) Stuart also helmed key John F. Kennedy assassination documentary “Four Days in November,” drawing an Oscar nomination in 1965, and produced William Shirer’s classic account of Nazi Germany, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” (1968), and 1972 concert film “Wattstax,” featuring a young Richard Pryor.
Less political documentary efforts included profiles of Billy Wilder and Man Ray that aired as part of PBS’ “American Masters” series.
In the early 2000s, Stuart produced and directed a series of literary documentaries for the BBC, and in 2005 he documented the efforts of a teacher to bring Shakespeare to fifth graders in a poor, dangerous neighborhood of Los Angeles in “The Hobart Shakespeareans,” which aired on PBS.
At the time of his death, Stuart had just completed his final documentary, “Shakespeare in Watts,” about an inner city high school cast on a journey of discovery through Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” (BAFTA/LA is involved in expanding the Shakespeare program into other schools.)
For his documentary work, Stuart also won four Emmys and a Peabody Award.
In addition to “Bill,” Stuart directed telepics including “Brenda Starr,” “The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal” and “Sophia Loren: Her Own Story,” which starred Loren as herself.
He was also exec producer of the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” series and of television specials such as three of the “AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies” efforts and “Happy Anniversary 007: 25 Years of James Bond.”
Stuart was born in New York City and graduated from NYU, where he studied music. He originally wanted to be a composer but changed direction; in 1954, he began working as an assistant editor for a commercials production company, where he became a special assistant to avant-garde filmmaker Mary Ellen Bute. Several years later, Stuart he was a film researcher for Walter Cronkite’s series “The 20th Century.” In 1959, David Wolper asked Stuart to join his newly formed production company, where Stuart made several of his documentaries, including “The Making of the President” films.
Stuart influenced Hollywood not just with his films but by mentoring such notables as directors James L. Brooks and William Friedkin, the reality producer Bertram van Munster and screenwriter David Seltzer.
Stuart served as president of the International Documentary Assn. for two years.
He was a guest lecturer on the subject of film and video production at various universities.
Stuart’s “Pure Imagination: The Making of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” the director’s remembrance of the creation of the film, was published in 2002.
He is survived by daughter Madeline, an interior designer; sons Peter, a filmmaker, and Andrew, a literary agent, and two grandchildren.