Oh, to catch Bud Greenspan’s eye and then turn up in one of his Olympic documentaries. For many athletes, from the famous to the obscure, the honor ranked just behind winning a medal.
The filmmaker, whose riveting tales soared as triumphantly as the men and women he chronicled for more than six decades, died Saturday at his home in New York City of complications from Parkinson’s disease, companion Nancy Beffa said. He was 84.
"Bud was a storyteller first and foremost. He never lost his sense of wonder and he never wavered in the stories he wanted to tell, nor how he told them," she said through a family friend. "No schmalzy music, no fog machines, none of that. He wanted to show why athletes endured what they did and how they accomplished what so few people ever do."
As a 21-year-old radio reporter, Greenspan filed his first Olympic story from a phone booth at Wembley stadium at the 1948 London Games. He cut a distinct figure at nearly every Summer and Winter Games afterward, his eyeglasses familiarly perched atop a bald dome, even in a swirling blizzard. His most recent work, about the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games — which Greenspan attended — will be ready for release in the coming weeks.
Yet even as controversies over politics, performance-enhancing drugs and commercialism increasingly vied for attention on the planet’s grandest sporting stage, he remained uncompromising about his focus on the most inspirational stories.
"I spend my time on about the 99 percent of what’s good about the Olympics and most people spend 100 percent of their time on the 1 percent that’s negative. I’ve been criticized for seeing things through rose-colored glasses, but the percentages are with me," he said in an interview with ESPN.com nearly a decade ago.
Greenspan received lifetime achievement awards from the Directors Guild of America and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, as well as a Peabody and the Olympic Order award. His best-known work was "The Olympiad," the culmination of 10 years of research, more than 3 million feet of rare, archival film, hundreds of interviews and visits to more than 30 nations. The 10-part series he produced was aired in more than 80 countries.
Greenspan got his first break while working as an extra at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. There, the young opera buff met an aspiring baritone named John Davis, who was not only a singer but the U.S. Olympic weightlifting gold medalist from the London Games.
Greenspan wrote a story about Davis, then followed him to Helsinki, where Davis won a second gold and subsequently became the subject of Greenspan’s first film, "The Strongest Man in the World." He made the short feature with a loan from his father, and used his brother, David Greenspan, as narrator. Their partnership continued for more than four decades.
Mike Moran, a former U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman, said "Greenspan’s lifetime of work was to the Olympic Games and the athletes what John Ford’s cinema was to the American West. He had no peer in his craft, and he was the artist that thousands of Olympic athletes dreamed of when they thought of how their stories might be told one day."
Scott Blackmun, the USOC’s chief executive officer, lauded the filmmaker for connecting the games to "everyday people in ways the founders of the games couldn’t have imagined."
Greenspan’s career took off with a film he made in 1964 about Olympian Jesse Owens returning to the scene of his gold-medal achievements in Berlin some 30 years earlier. But he never lost his love for the smallest victories as well, citing a last-place finish by Tanzanian marathoner John Stephen Ahkwari at Mexico City in 1968 as his favorite Olympic moment.
"He came in about an hour and a half after the winner. He was practically carrying his leg, it was so bloodied and bandaged," Greenspan recalled in that ESPN.com interview. "I asked him, ‘Why did you keep going?’ 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."
In 1985, when Greenspan received the Olympic Order award, former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch called him the "foremost producer, writer and director of Olympic films; more than that, he is an everlasting friend of the Olympic family."
The admiration was mutual. Greenspan acknowledged the problems that plagued the Olympic movement, but rarely lingered over them in his films.
"They’re two weeks of love," he said about the games. "It’s Like Never Never Land. Like Robin Hood shooting his arrow through the other guy’s arrow.
"It’s a privilege to be associated with the best in the world. How many times are you with the best in the world in something? They bring things forward that they don’t ordinarily do."
Born Joseph Greenspan, the native New Yorker also wrote books, produced nearly 20 spoken-word albums and was an avid tennis players into his 70s. He struggled with Parkinson’s the last few years, but refused to let it curtail his work and traveling.
"His legacy, really, is his films. He wanted them to live on, to illuminate what was good about people," Beffa said. "He understood the other side of the Olympics, he just was determined not to let that change the glasses through which he looked at the world."
Besides Beffa, Greenspan is survived by a sister, Sarah Rosenberg.
There was no word on a funeral. The family has requested that any donations be made to a scholarship in his name administered by the USOC at the University of Southern California film school.