Robert Drew

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Robert Drew
Born Robert Lincoln Drew
(1924-02-15)February 15, 1924
Toledo, Ohio
Died July 30, 2014(2014-07-30) (aged 90)
Sharon, Connecticut
Occupation Documentary filmmaker
Years active 1955–2014

Robert Lincoln Drew (February 15, 1924 – July 30, 2014) was an American documentary filmmaker known as one of the pioneers—and sometimes called father[1]—of[2] cinéma vérité, or direct cinema, in the United States. Six of his films are archived at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences,[3] and two are in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.[4] His many awards include an International Documentary Association Career Achievement Award.[5]


Drew was born in Toledo, Ohio. His father, Robert Woodsen Drew, was a film salesman and a pilot who ran a seaplane business. Drew grew up mostly in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. He left high school to join the U.S. Army Air Corps as a cadet [1] in 1942 and qualified for officer's training. At the age of 19, he was a combat pilot in Italy flying the P-51 dive bomber, completing 30 successful combat missions.[2] During that time he met Ernie Pyle, an important experience for a pilot who would become a journalist.[6] Then he was shot down behind the lines, where he survived for more than three months. Back in the U.S., he was a pilot in the First Fighter Group, the first to fly jet airplanes. He wrote an article about the experience of flying a P-80 for Life Magazine and was offered a job by Time Inc.[2]

While working at Life Magazine (Time Inc.) as a writer and editor, Drew held a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University in 1955,[7] where he focused on two questions: Why are documentaries so dull? What would it take for them to become gripping and exciting?[8]

He developed a unit within Time Inc to realize his vision[9] of developing documentary films that would use picture logic rather than word logic. Drew envisioned—as he explained in a 1962 interview [10]—a form of documentary that would “drop word logic and find a dramatic logic in which things really happened.” It would be “a theater without actors; it would be plays without playwrights; it would be reporting without summary and opinion; it would be the ability to look in on people’s lives at crucial times from which you could deduce certain things and see a kind of truth that can only be gotten from personal experience.”

He formed Drew Associates around this time.[11] Some of his early experiments premiered on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Jack Paar Show.[11] Drew recruited like-minded filmmakers including Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Terence Macartney-Filgate, and Albert Maysles,[2] who all have had internationally renowned careers. They experimented with technology, syncing camera and sound with the parts of a watch.

One of Drew Associates' best known films is Primary (1960), a documentary about the Wisconsin Primary election between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. It is considered to be one of the first direct cinema documentaries. According to critic Matt Zoller Seitz, Primary "had as immense and measurable an impact on nonfiction filmmaking as Birth of a Nation had on fiction filmmaking."[12]

On June 11, 1963, the Alabama Governor George Wallace[13] blocked the entrance of the University of Alabama to oppose integration. His defiance of court order rapidly became a national issue in the U.S. Drew Associates had a cameraman in the Oval office and recorded the meetings over the crisis. The result played on TV in October 1963. Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment not only fueled discussions over the Civil Rights Movement, it also triggered a profound questioning over the political power of cinema verite or direct cinema. Politicians became more cautious about allowing access by documentary filmmakers, working closely with many of the original Drew Associates filmmakers who had and have continued to have documentary careers of their own.

For Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963), Drew convinced President John F. Kennedy to let his crews shoot candidly in the White House, and Drew Associates filmmakers (including Gregory Shuker and Richard Leacock) took cameras into the Oval Office and into the home of Alabama Governor George Wallace who was resisting desegregation. "I proposed to make a next film on him as a President having to deal with a crisis," Drew has recalled. "'Yes,' he said, 'What if I could look back and see what went on in the White House in the 24 hours before Roosevelt declared war on Japan?'"[14]

The film includes candid presidential meetings over the crisis precipitated by Wallace when he planned to physically block the entry of two African-American students to the University of Alabama. The program aired in October 1963 on ABC and triggered a storm of criticism over the admission of cameras into the White House.

Drew's films have been shown on ABC, PBS, the BBC,[15] and film festivals all over the world. Film director Sir Ridley Scott credits his early experience working at Drew Associates as an assistant with turning his career from design to film.[16]

Drew has made scores of documentaries and has won awards internationally. His subjects have included civil rights, other social issues, politics, music, dance and more. One of his most recent was From Two Men and a War,[17] which recounts his experience as a World War II fighter pilot and his encounters with the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ernie Pyle.


He died on July 30, 2014, at his home in Sharon, Connecticut.[18]

Selected filmography

  • Key Picture (Magazine X) (1954) [2]
  • American Football (1957) [2]
  • The B-52 (1957) [2]
  • Balloon Ascension (1958) [2]
  • Weightless (1958) [2]
  • Bullfight (1959) [2]
  • On the Pole (1960) [2]
  • Yanki No! (1960) [2]
  • Primary (1960), Best Documentary, Flaherty Award; Blue Ribbon Award, American Film Festival; Outstanding Film, London Film Festival[2] National Film Registry of the Library of Congress[4]
  • Adventures on the New Frontier [14]
  • The Children Were Watching (1961) [2]
  • Petey and Johnny (1961), Outstanding Film, London Film Festival [2]
  • Mooney vs. Fowle (1961), Outstanding Film, London Film Festival [2]
  • On the Pole: Eddie Sachs (1961)[2][14]
  • The Chair (1962), First Prize, Cannes Film Festival [2]
  • Blackie (1962) [14]
  • Nehru (1962) [2]
  • The Aga Khan (1962) [2]
  • Susan Starr (1962) [2]
  • Jane (The Jane Fonda Story) (1962)[2]
  • Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963); National Film Registry of the Library of Congress;[4] First prize, Venice Film Festival; Cine Golden Eagle; First Prize, International Documentary Film Festival, Bilbao[2]
  • Faces of November (1964), First prize, Venice Film Festival[2]
  • Storm Signal (1966), First prize, Venice Film Festival [14]
  • Man Who Dances (1968), First Prize, International Cinema Exhibition, Bilbao,[2][19] Cine Golden Eagle, Emmy Award, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences[15]
  • Duke Ellington (1968), Cine Golden Eagle [2]
  • The New Met (1968), First Prize, International Cinema Exhibition, Bilbao; Cine Golden Eagle [2]
  • Jazz: The Intimate Art (1969), Cine Golden Eagle [2]
  • The Space Duet of Spider and Gumdrop (1969), Cine Golden Eagle [2]
  • Martian Investigations (1969), Cine Golden Eagle [2]
  • The Sun Ship Game (1969), Cine Golden Eagle [2]
  • Parade of the Tall Ships (1976), Cine Golden Eagle [2]
  • Kathy's Dance (1977), Cine Golden Eagle; Silver Hugo, Chicago Film Festival; Blue Ribbon Award, American Film Festival,[2]
  • Talent for America (1978) [2]
  • Grasshopper Plague (1979) [2]
  • Maine Winter (1979) [2]
  • One Room Schoolhouse (1979) [2]
  • Herself, Indira Gandhi (1982), Cine Golden Eagle [2]
  • Fire Season (1982) [2]
  • Warnings from Gangland (1984-1985)
  • Marshall High Fights Back (1984-1985), Cine Golden Eagle; Emmy nomination; First Prize, Education Writers Association [2]
  • Shootout on Imperial Highway (1984-1985) [2]
  • The Transformation of Rajiv Gandhi (1985-1986) [2]
  • For Auction: An American Hero (1985-1986), Best Documentary, DuPont-Columbia Award; Cine Golden Eagle; Emmy nomination [2]
  • Your Flight is Cancelled (1987-1988)[2]
  • Messages from the Birds (1987-1988) [2]
  • River of Hawks (1987-1988) [2]
  • London to Peking: The Great Motoring Challenge (1989-1990) [2]
  • Life and Death of a Dynasty (1990-1991), Cine Golden Eagle [2]
  • From Two Men and a War (2005) [6][17]
  • A President to Remember (2007) [20]


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Robert Drew, Documentarian Who Fathered Cinema Verite, Dies at 90". Variety.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 2.19 2.20 2.21 2.22 2.23 2.24 2.25 2.26 2.27 2.28 2.29 2.30 2.31 2.32 2.33 2.34 2.35 2.36 2.37 2.38 2.39 2.40 2.41 2.42 2.43 2.44 2.45 2.46 2.47 O'Connell, P.J. (November 26, 1992). Robert Drew and the Development of Cinema Verite in America. Southern Illinois University Press. pp. 5–9. ISBN 0809317796.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Films Preserved by the Academy Film Archive". Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 2014-07-28.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 "National Film Registry Titles". National Film Preservation Board. Library of Congress. Retrieved 2014-07-28.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. The Paley Center Retrieved July 16, 2014. Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 "From Two Men and a War". IMDb. IMDb. Retrieved 2014-07-25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Drew, Robert. "Nieman Reports | A Nieman Year Spent Pondering Storytelling". Retrieved 2014-07-31.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Drew, Robert. "A Nieman Year Spent Pondering Storytelling". Nieman Reports. Harvard University. Retrieved Fall 2001. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Direct Cinema: Richard Leacock and Robert Drew discuss the original philosophy of 'Direct Cinema.'". YouTube.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Filmmaker Robert Drew discusses his ideas that created American cinema verite (1962)". Vimeo. Retrieved 2014-07-25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. 11.0 11.1 Newcomb, Horace (2004). Encyclopedia of Television. Routledge. ISBN 978-1579583941. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Seitz, Matt Zoller. "Filmmaker Robert Drew on light cameras and light rifles". New York Press. New York Press. Retrieved November 25, 2003.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "Wallace in the Schoolhouse Door", National Public Radio
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 "Film Library". Drew Associates. Drew Associates. Retrieved July 18, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. 15.0 15.1 "Drew, Robert". Museum of Broadcast Communications. Museum of Broadcast Communications. Retrieved 2014-07-25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "Ridley Scott's American Gangster". Coming Soon.Net. Coming Soon. Retrieved 2014-07-30.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. 17.0 17.1 "From Two Men and a War". Tribeca Film Festival. Tribeca Film Festival. Retrieved 2014-07-30.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Pedersen, Erik (1924-02-15). "Robert Drew Dead, Cinema Verite Pioneer". Retrieved 2014-07-31.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. "Man Who Dances: Edward Villella". IMDb. IMDb.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Sutton, Ron. "JFK Redux: From Two Men and a War". International Documentary Association. Retrieved 2014-07-30.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • P. J. O'Connell, "Robert Drew and the Development of Cinema Verite in America," Southern University Press, 1992
  • Margaret A. Blanchard, "History of the Mass Media in the United States," Routledge, 1999
  • Robert Drew, "A Nieman Year Spent Pondering Storytelling," Nieman Reports, Fall 2001
  • "JFK Before the Camera," Richard Brody, The New Yorker, November 22, 2013
  • "Reminiscences of Robert Drew: Oral History, 1980," Transcript and Tape, Columbia University Center for Oral History
  • "New Challenges for Documentary," edited by Alan Rosenthal, University of California Press, 1988 (contains chapter by Robert Drew)
  • Dave Saunders, Direct Cinema: Observational Documentary and the Politics of the Sixties, London, Wallflower Press 2007
  • Richard Leacock, "The Feeling of Being There: a filmmaker's memoir," Semeion Editions, 2011

External links