Monday, December 27, 2010

When Athletes Met at the Opera

Bud Greenspan, who disdained scandals to write, produce and direct uplifting documentaries about Olympic athletes facing triumph and tragedy, died Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 84.

He made additional money as an extra in the Metropolitan Opera chorus, where he was a spear carrier who was told never to sing. In the chorus, he met another extra, John Davis, an African-American baritone and heavyweight weight lifter who went on to win gold medals at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics.


Greenspan was born in New York City. He overcame a lisp in adolescence and went into sports broadcasting after graduating from New York University. In 1947 Greenspan became sports director at New York City's WMGM (AM), at that time the largest sports radio station in the US, when he was 21 years old. When he left WMGM, Greenspan began contributing articles to magazines while also producing television commercials.
(Photo: Cappy Productions, Inc.)

He dabbled in documentary filmmaking in 1952, with The Strongest Man in the World, a 15-minute feature on weightlifter John Davis, but he began his filmmaking career in earnest in 1964, accompanying Jesse Owens to West Berlin to film Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin. In 1967, he formed his own film company, Cappy Productions, Inc., with wife Cappy Petrash Greenspan (deceased 1983). He and his wife had one son. After his wife's death, Greenspan ran Cappy Productions with his companion Nancy Beffa.

Several hour-long productions followed. Greenspan won his first Emmy for 1976's The Olympiad, 22 hour-long documentary specials on the Olympics (including Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin). The series was broadcast in 80 countries. In 1977, he branched into docudrama with the two-hour movie of the week biography of gold-medalist Wilma Rudolph. Wilma, starring Cicely Tyson, featured Denzel Washington in his first movie role. In 1979, he launched the first of several vignette series: This Day in Sports, which aired on CBS, featured 365 30-second film shorts highlighting exciting sports moments from years past. It was followed in 1980 by the similar Olympic Moments, Olympic Events and Olympic Vignettes.

In addition to his prolific film work, Greenspan continued working in other media. He was a contributing editor for PARADE magazine. He also authored a number of books, including several on the Olympics, a book of sports bloopers called Play It Again, Bud, and We Wuz Robbed, which addresses sports controversies. Great Moments in Sports, his first album, went gold and led him to produce 18 more spoken word albums.

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