Olympic filmmaker Bud Greenspan dies

By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010; 7:32 PM

Bud Greenspan, 84, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker whose best-known documentaries focused on the jubilant triumphs and crushing defeats of Olympic athletes, died Dec. 25 at his home in New York.

He had Parkinson's disease, his longtime companion, Nancy Beffa, said.

In a career spanning five decades and scores of films, Mr. Greenspan won eight Emmy Awards, including a lifetime achievement sports Emmy in 2006.

In 1996, Mr. Greenspan received the George Foster Peabody Award for creating "his own genre of sports documentary" filming the Olympic Games.

Mr. Greenspan made 10 official films for the International Olympic Committee, including the 1986 documentary "16 Days of Glory," about the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

A Washington Post reviewer called it "the single-most inspiring sports film ever created. It's more about people than sports, and the viewer can't help but share in the joy, hope, fears and tears of victory and defeat."

Mr. Greenspan rose to prominence in 1976 with a 22-part documentary called "The Olympiad," which aired on PBS, and later on ESPN, ABC and in 80 countries around the world. The epic project, which took several years to complete, relied heavily on Mr. Greenspan's eye for an emotional storyline.

The series featured the Emmy-winning 1968 documentary "Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin." The film centered on the African American athlete's journey back to the capital of Nazi Germany more than 30 years after he won four gold medals there.

Mr. Greenspan's productions did not always feature champions. He said he often found his best material by portraying the also-rans and not-quites.

Among the athletes Mr. Greenspan chronicled was John Stephen Akhwari, who finished last in the 1968 Olympic marathon in Mexico City. The Tanzanian runner had injured his leg but continued running despite his bandaged and bloodied knee, crossing the finish line an hour after the winner.

"I asked him, 'Why did you keep going?' " Mr. Greenspan told ESPN in an interview. "He said, 'You don't understand. My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start a race, they sent me to finish it.' That sent chills down my spine and I've always remembered it."

Some film critics noted that Mr. Greenspan's productions rarely mentioned any scandal, such as steroid-popping athletes or officiating troubles at the Olympic Games.

Leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Mr. Greenspan made a promotional film that helped Beijing acquire the Games. Some critics called the work essentially propaganda because it ignored China's history of human rights abuses.

Mr. Greenspan was aware of his reputation for lighter fare, and once said Olympic coverage should be "two weeks of fluff," focusing on tales of perseverance rather than gossipy headlines.

"I've been criticized for having rose-colored glasses," Mr. Greenspan told the New York Times in 1996. "I say if that's true, what's so bad? I'm not good at hurting people."

He was born Jonah Joseph Greenspan on Sept. 18, 1926, in New York, where as a teenager he worked in sports radio. The first Olympics he attended was the 1948 Summer Games in London.

A history graduate of New York University, Mr. Greenspan was a sometime actor who appeared as a spear-holder in a Metropolitan Opera production, where he met John Davis.

Davis, a fellow extra, was a gold medalist in the London Games as a weightlifter.

In 1952, Mr. Greenspan followed Davis to the Summer Games in Helsinki as the brawny athlete attempted to retain his champion status.

Mr. Greenspan filmed Davis winning gold a second time and sold his 15-minute feature to the State Department for $35,000. Mr. Greenspan said he never considered another line of work again.

A harrowing moment in his career came during the Munich Games in 1972, when he covered the crisis as Palestinian terrorists took members of the Israeli delegation hostage, an event he revisited in a documentary in 2002.

In 1977, Mr. Greenspan made an NBC television movie about Wilma Rudolph, a sprinter who in 1960 became the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. The movie starred an up-and-coming actor named Denzel Washington.

Mr. Greenspan also made films outside of the Olympics, including documentaries on boxing, baseball and thoroughbred racing.

He contribued to a number of spoken-word albums about historical events including the Nuremberg war crimes trials and the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Besides Beffa, survivors include a sister.

For many years, Mr. Greenspan worked alongside his wife, Constance Petrash Greenspan, who died in 1983. His film company, Cappy Productions, is named in her honor.

"When my wife was alive, many times we would say to each other 'We have no children, what will we leave behind? She would say the films will be our children,' " Mr. Greenspan once told an interviewer. "I will have done something for generations not even born yet. That is what drives me. If there is a Beethoven and a Rembrandt, why can't there be a Greenspan?"

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