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Richard Leacock, influential in growth of cinéma-vérité

Mr. Leacock favored unobtrusive, lightweight film equipment. Mr. Leacock favored unobtrusive, lightweight film equipment. (Globe File Photo)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / March 25, 2011

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Richard Leacock, a key figure in the history of documentary filmmaking and a longtime film teacher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, died Wednesday at his home in Paris. He was 89.

According to his daughter, Victoria Leacock Hoffman, he had been in failing health.

Mr. Leacock, who shot his first documentary at age 14, had a filmmaking career that spanned nearly eight decades. He is most closely associated with the cinéma-vérité school of documentary, which relies on handheld cameras, available light, and unmediated action.

“It’s such an important style of presentation and still informs how we see and capture the world on film and video,’’ Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris said in a telephone interview yesterday. “And he was central to that.’’

The New Statesman, a British magazine, once wrote, “Mr. Leacock’s is the kind of talent that disrupts generalization. He is an artist of the actual, genuinely being there at the crucial moment and somehow editing the resulting footage so that you feel his function as more midwifely than anything else.’’

Mr. Leacock was associated with the Direct Cinema variant of cinéma-vérité. Emerging in the late 1950s with the development of relatively lightweight camera and sound equipment and high-speed film, this movement prided itself on unobtrusiveness and being observational rather than confrontational.

As Mr. Leacock said in a 1969 Boston Globe interview: “The point is to find the event. It’s the difference between creating shots and finding shots.’’

Along with such colleagues as Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker, and Albert and David Maysles, Mr. Leacock helped transform nonfiction film. Among the influential titles he worked on as cinematographer or director are “Primary’’ (1960), “Crisis’’ (1963), “A Stravinsky Portrait’’ (1966), and “Monterey Pop’’ (1968).

Mr. Leacock’s background in documentary film well preceded cinéma-vérité and Direct Cinema. “Often scared but never bored,’’ as he put it in his Harvard class 25th anniversary report, he served as a US Army combat cameraman in the China-Burma-India theater during World War II. He then worked closely with Robert Flaherty, a founding father of documentary, on “Louisiana Story’’ (1948).

“From Flaherty, I really learned about almost feeling things instead of looking at things with a camera,’’ Mr. Leacock said in a 1976 Globe interview.

Mr. Leacock’s vibrant presence contributed to the impact he made.

“He was an incredibly generous and nice man, always enthusiastic about others’ work,’’ Morris said.

Universal known as Ricky, he possessed a zest and insouciance that were in keeping with his dashing looks. Mr. Leacock had the appearance of an amused, slightly dissolute aristocrat.

His father owned a banana plantation in the Canary Islands (that first film Mr. Leacock made, at 14, was about growing the fruit). An undergraduate friend at Harvard was Leonard Bernstein.

Mr. Leacock filmed one of the last interviews with the silent film star Louise Brooks, for his documentary “Lulu in Berlin’’ (1984). Other documentary subjects included the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a set of quintuplets in South Dakota, and staging of a lost Prokofiev opera in provincial Siberia.

“He was definitely one of a kind,’’ Ross McElwee said in a telephone interview. McElwee, the director of such documentaries as “Sherman’s March’’ and a professor of film at Harvard, studied with Leacock at MIT in the ’70s. “He was very vivid, engaging, and unpredictable.’’

That unpredictability often took the form of a muscular independence. When Mr. Leacock and Pennebaker screened “Monterey Pop’’ for ABC, which had commissioned the documentary, the head of the network said it did not “meet industry standards.’’

“I didn’t know you had any,’’ Mr. Leacock replied. ABC did not broadcast “Monterey Pop.’’

“Along with a few other people, he really created a new approach to making documentary films,’’ McElwee said. “That’s very important. But what I’ll remember him for is his insistence on irreverence and spontaneity and refusing to follow a formula. He more or less forbade us, his students, from making stuff that was salable or commercial. That’s such a valuable lesson for young people to learn, and from a man who lived his life that way.’’

Mr. Leacock taught at MIT from 1968 to 1989. He ran the MIT Film Unit, with the documentary filmmaker Ed Pincus, who brought Mr. Leacock to the institute.

“He was certainly an atypical MIT professor, to say the least,’’ recalled McElwee. “He loved to hold forth in a long-gone diner in Kendall Square. He’d have a beer in the afternoon and talk with his students and flirt with the waitresses. Just his presence galvanized the local documentary-filmmaking scene.’’

Mr. Leacock was born in London. An older brother, Philip, would become a film and television director, with such credits as “Bonanza’’ and “Falcon Crest.’’

At 11, Mr. Leacock experienced an epiphany at his English boarding school. He and his classmates were shown a silent film about the Trans-Siberian Railway. “I was riveted, astounded; here was what I had been looking for, and it was simple; all I needed was a movie camera and I could do it myself,’’ he wrote in a 1997 autobiographical essay of the act of recording reality.

“Richard Leacock: The Feeling of Being There,’’ a memoir, is set to be released this summer.

In that 1997 essay, Mr. Leacock tried to describe his fundamental goal as a filmmaker, while expressing his awareness of how difficult that goal was to attain. “What am I looking for? I hope to be able to create sequences, that when run together will present aspects of my perception of what took place in the presence of my camera. To capture spontaneity it must exist and everything you do is liable to destroy it . . . beware!’’

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Leacock leaves his wife, Valerie Lalond; two other daughters, Elspeth and Claudia; two sons, Robert and David; and nine grandchildren, according to the Associated Press. Mr. Leacock’s first marriage, to Eleanor Burke, ended in divorce. His second wife, Marilyn West, died in 1980.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.