Robert Drew

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Robert Drew
Robert Lincoln Drew

(1924-02-15)February 15, 1924
DiedJuly 30, 2014(2014-07-30) (aged 90)
OccupationDocumentary filmmaker
Years active1955–2014

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][2]—of cinéma vérité, or direct cinema, in the United States. Two of his films, Primary and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, have been named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.[3] The moving image collection of Robert Drew is housed at the Academy Film Archive.[4] The Academy Film Archive has preserved a number of his films, including Faces of November, Herself: Indira Gandhi, and Bravo!/Kathy's Dance.[5] His many awards include an International Documentary Association Career Achievement Award.[6]


Robert 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.[7] Drew 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 for Life magazine about the experience flying a P-80 and was subsequently offered a job.[2]

While working at Life as a writer and editor, Drew held a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. In 1955 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."[11]

He formed Drew Associates around this time.[12] Some of his early experiments premiered on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Jack Paar Show.[12] 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. For Primary, Drew had Mitch Bogdanovich make smaller 16mm cameras that allowed for handheld use [13]

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."[14]

After Kennedy responded positively to Primary, Drew "proposed to make a next film on him as a President having to deal with a crisis. '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?'"[15] They finally got their chance when Governor George Wallace of Alabama pledged to personally stand in the doorway to block the enrollment of two African-American students in the University of Alabama to show his opposition to integration. Drew secured permission for Drew Associates filmmakers to shoot in the White House, particularly with Robert Kennedy, as well as in Alabama in the home of George Wallace, in the days leading up to June 11, 1963, when Wallace made his infamous stand. The resulting film, Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, aired on TV in October 1963 and fueled discussions about the Civil Rights Movement as well as cinéma vérité, or direct cinema. It also triggered a storm of criticism over the admission of cameras into the White House. Afterward, politicians became more cautious about allowing access to documentary filmmakers, working closely with many of the original Drew Associates filmmakers who had and have continued to have documentary careers of their own.

Drew's films have been shown on ABC, PBS, the BBC,[16] 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.[17]

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,[18] which recounts his experience as a World War II fighter pilot and his encounters with the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ernie Pyle.


Drew died on July 30, 2014, at his home in Sharon, Connecticut.[19]

Select filmography[edit]

Who's Out There? (1973), an award-winning NASA documentary film by Robert Drew about the likelihood of life on other planets
Year Title Notes
1954 Key Picture (Magazine X) [2]
1957 American Football [2]
1957 The B-52 [2]
1958 Balloon Ascension [2]
1958 Weightless [2]
1959 Bullfight [2]
1960 On the Pole [2]
1960 Yanki No! [2]
1960 Primary Best Documentary, Flaherty Award
Blue Ribbon Award, American Film Festival
Outstanding Film, London Film Festival[2]
National Film Registry, Library of Congress[3]
1961 Adventures on the New Frontier [15]
1961 The Children Were Watching [2]
1961 Petey and Johnny Outstanding Film, London Film Festival [2]
1961 Mooney vs. Fowle Outstanding Film, London Film Festival [2]
1961 On the Pole: Eddie Sachs [2][15]
1962 The Chair First Prize, Cannes Film Festival [2]
1962 Blackie [15]
1962 Nehru [2]
1962 The Aga Khan [2]
1962 Susan Starr [2]
1962 Jane [2]
1963 Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment National Film Registry, Library of Congress[3]
First prize, Venice Film Festival
Cine Golden Eagle
First Prize, International Documentary Film Festival, Bilbao[2]
1964 Faces of November First prize, Venice Film Festival[2]
1966 Storm Signal First prize, Venice Film Festival[2]
1968 Man Who Dances First Prize, International Cinema Exhibition, Bilbao,[2][20]
Cine Golden Eagle
Emmy Award, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences[16]
1968 On the Road with Duke Ellington Cine Golden Eagle [2]
1968 The New Met First Prize, International Cinema Exhibition, Bilbao
Cine Golden Eagle [2]
1969 Jazz: The Intimate Art Cine Golden Eagle [2]
1969 The Space Duet of Spider and Gumdrop Cine Golden Eagle [2]
1969 Martian Investigations Cine Golden Eagle [2]
1969 The Sun Ship Game Cine Golden Eagle [2]
1973 Who's Out There? Cine Golden Eagle[21]
1976 Parade of the Tall Ships Cine Golden Eagle[2]
1977 Kathy's Dance Cine Golden Eagle
Silver Hugo, Chicago Film Festival
Blue Ribbon Award, American Film Festival[2]
1978 Talent for America [2]
1979 Grasshopper Plague [2]
1979 Maine Winter [2]
1979 One Room Schoolhouse [2]
1982 784 Days That Changed America: From Watergate to Resignation Peabody Award
American Bar Association Silver Gavel Award
International Film and TV Festival of New York Gold Award[22]
1982 Herself, Indira Gandhi Cine Golden Eagle[2]
1982 Fire Season [2]
1984 Warning from Gangland [23]
1984 Marshall High Fights Back Cine Golden Eagle
Nomination, Emmy Award
First Prize, Education Writers Association[24]
1985 Shootout on Imperial Highway [25]
1986 For Auction: An American Hero Best Documentary, DuPont-Columbia Award
Cine Golden Eagle
Nominee, Emmy Award[26]
1988 River of Hawks [27]
1988 Your Flight is Cancelled [28]
1988 Messages from the Birds [29]
1990 London to Peking: The Great Motoring Challenge [30]
1991 Life and Death of a Dynasty Cine Golden Eagle[31]
1996 L.A. Champions [32]
1996 On the Trail of the Vanishing Birds [33]
2005 From Two Men and a War [34][18]
2008 A President to Remember: In the Company of JFK [35][36]


  1. ^ a b "Robert Drew, Documentarian Who Fathered Cinema Verite, Dies at 90". Variety. 30 July 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an 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.
  3. ^ a b c "National Film Registry Titles". National Film Preservation Board. Library of Congress. Retrieved 2014-07-28.
  4. ^ "Robert Drew Collection". Academy Film Archive.
  5. ^ "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.
  6. ^ "T:64094". The Paley Center. Retrieved July 16, 2014.
  7. ^ "From Two Men and a War". IMDb. Retrieved 2014-07-25.
  8. ^ "A Nieman Year Spent Pondering Storytelling". Nieman Reports. Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. September 15, 2001. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  9. ^ "Direct Cinema: Richard Leacock and Robert Drew discuss the original philosophy of 'Direct Cinema.'". YouTube. Archived from the original on 2021-12-14.
  10. ^ "Filmmaker Robert Drew discusses his ideas that created American cinema verite (1962)". Vimeo. 15 January 2014. Retrieved 2014-07-25.
  11. ^ Cipriani, Casey (2014-11-14). "'Jane,' 'The Chair' and More Drew Associates Documentaries to Stream on SundanceNow Doc Club". IndieWire. Retrieved 2019-07-27.
  12. ^ a b Newcomb, Horace (2004). Encyclopedia of Television. Routledge. ISBN 978-1579583941.
  13. ^ Issa, 2016
  14. ^ Seitz, Matt Zoller. "Filmmaker Robert Drew on light cameras and light rifles". New York Press. Retrieved November 25, 2003.
  15. ^ a b c d "Film Library". Drew Associates. Retrieved July 18, 2014.
  16. ^ a b "Drew, Robert". Museum of Broadcast Communications. Retrieved 2014-07-25.
  17. ^ "Ridley Scott's American Gangster". Coming Soon.Net. Coming Soon. Retrieved 2014-07-30.
  18. ^ a b "From Two Men and a War". Tribeca Film Festival. Retrieved 2014-07-30.
  19. ^ Pedersen, Erik (1924-02-15). "Robert Drew Dead, Cinema Verite Pioneer". Retrieved 2014-07-31.
  20. ^ "Man Who Dances: Edward Villella". IMDb.
  21. ^ "Who's Out There?". Drew Associates. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  22. ^ "784 Days That Changed America: From Watergate to Resignation". Drew Associates. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  23. ^ "Warning from Gangland". Drew Associates. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  24. ^ "Marshall High Fights Back". Drew Associates. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  25. ^ "Shootout on Imperial Highway". Drew Associates. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  26. ^ "For Auction: An American Hero". Drew Associates. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  27. ^ "River of Hawks". Drew Associates. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  28. ^ "Your Flight is Cancelled". Drew Associates. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  29. ^ "Messages from the Birds". Drew Associates. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  30. ^ "London to Peking: The Great Motoring Challenge". Drew Associates. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  31. ^ "Life and Death of a Dynasty". Drew Associates. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  32. ^ "L.A. Champions". Drew Associates. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  33. ^ "On the Trail of the Vanishing Birds". Drew Associates. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  34. ^ "From Two Men and a War". Drew Associates. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  35. ^ "A President to Remember: In the Company of JFK". Drew Associates. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  36. ^ Sutton, Ron (September 2008). "JFK Redux: From Two Men and a War". International Documentary Association. Retrieved 2014-07-30.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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[edit]