Craig Gilbert, 94, Dies; Created Groundbreaking ‘American Family’

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Craig Gilbert, who created what is widely considered to have been the first reality television show, “An American Family,” in 1973 and then all but disappeared from public view amid a storm of criticism and lasting, bitter disputes among its participants, died on Friday at his home in Lower Manhattan. He was 94.

John Mulholland, a longtime friend and co-worker, confirmed the death.

Mr. Gilbert spent most of his final decades living alone in a small apartment on Jane Street, relying on money he had inherited from his parents. “An American Family” was the last film he made.

But in the early 1970s he was the envy of many documentarians, having produced well-received films about the anthropologist Margaret Mead and the disabled Irish writer Christy Brown.

He was a producer at WNET, the New York public television outlet, when he came up with an even more ambitious idea, at a time when narrative journalism was on the rise: to follow a real American family for months, capturing moments mundane and emotional in an unvarnished, unrehearsed style known as cinéma vérité.

He then persuaded WNET to finance the project with $1.2 million (about $7.6 million in today’s money), and set about seeking an appropriate family for the venture.

“It was not hard to find people who wanted to do it — people jumped at the opportunity,” he said in an interview for this obituary in 2013. “But I wanted a family that was very, very middle-class and had a wide spread of kids — as wide a spread of children in age as possible.”

An editor of the women’s section at The Santa Barbara News-Press introduced him to the Louds — Bill, Pat and their five children, Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah and Michele.

“I met the family on a Thursday,” Mr. Gilbert said. “They agreed to do it on Sunday. I flew back to New York on Monday, and a week later we started shooting. I knew nothing except that they were an attractive couple with four attractive kids — or four kids that I knew and one I didn’t know.”

Mrs. Loud, too, recalled making a quick decision.

“We asked the kids, and they all agreed,” she said, also in a 2013 interview for this obituary. “It seemed like a fun thing to do.”

Yet in 300 hours of filming over seven months in 1971, the cameras recorded scenes that startled viewers when the program was broadcast nearly two years later as a 12-part series.

The son Mr. Gilbert said he had not met, Lance, the eldest child, was revealed to be gay. (Mr. Gilbert said he did not know Lance was gay when he chose the Louds.) Bill Loud was filmed discussing his belief that family life in America denied men the independence they deserved. In one memorable scene, Bill and Pat had a drunken argument in a favorite Mexican restaurant. In another, she coolly told him to move out after he had returned from a business trip.

What happened off camera has been in dispute since the show aired. Mr. and Mrs. Loud have both said that their marriage was troubled before the filming, but some people involved in the show later accused Mr. Gilbert of enabling their breakup after he learned of the tension, with the goal of generating compelling footage.

“Craig decides at that point that he’s going to sort of schmooze her incessantly to make some kind of decision about this situation,” Alan Raymond, who, with his wife, Susan, did the filming and sound recording for the program, said in an interview for this obituary.

In one extended scene, Pat Loud complained to her brother and sister-in-law about infidelities that she said Bill had committed.

Mrs. Loud told The New York Times that she had been “coerced” into doing the scene on camera. Mr. Gilbert strongly disagreed.

“I said, ‘Pat, we must shoot that,’” he recalled in the 2013 interview. “She said, ‘I do not want you to.’ I said, ‘We must, Pat, because otherwise it’s going to come out of the blue. No one will understand it.’

“She finally agreed, and her brother and sister-in-law were in the room when she agreed to it. And now she says she was coerced.”

Mr. Gilbert and the Raymonds, who had worked together on the film about Christy Brown, stopped speaking to one another after “An American Family” was broadcast.

The Raymonds claimed that they should have been credited as directors. Mr. Gilbert said that the nature of the program meant that it had no director. He accused the Raymonds of undercutting the project by refusing to film painful realities of the Louds’ relationship, including portions of the argument in the Mexican restaurant.

Most news media coverage was negative. The Louds appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine with the headline “The Broken Family.” The family complained that Mr. Gilbert had edited the series to titillate and dwell on negative elements.

“We were California airheads as far as they were concerned,” Mrs. Loud said in 2013, referring to the press coverage.

Mr. Gilbert defended his work even before it was criticized. “This was a cooperative venture in every sense of the word,” he said in the opening of the first episode.

But even as Mr. Gilbert stood by his work, he also appeared distraught by the criticism.

“As its producer, I was accused of being a Svengali-like manipulator,” he wrote in 1982, “a crass invader of privacy, and a brooding East Coast neurotic with a compelling need to foist my twisted vision of life on an unsuspecting public.”

He added: “I retreated from life. I told myself this retreat would be temporary; I would lick my wounds, regroup, and come out fighting. But of course that didn’t happen.”

Craig P. Gilbert was born on Aug. 13, 1925, in Manhattan. His father, Francis, was a musical copyright lawyer whose clients included Irving Berlin and Frank Lesser. His mother, Minna, was a homemaker.

He graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., in 1943, before joining the American Red Cross. Mr. Gilbert was working with the American Red Cross while they aided the British army in liberating the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945.

After returning from the war he enrolled in Harvard and graduated in 1949.

Mr. Gilbert left no immediate survivors. He separated from his wife, Suzanne (Stater) Gilbert, shortly before shooting began for “An American Family,” and they remained separated, though they never divorced. She died in 2005.

After college Mr. Gilbert variously worked as a gopher on Broadway, as a journalist, as a freelance television script writer and as a film editor and producer. By the mid-1960s he had found a full-time position writing and producing for WNET. He become an executive producer in 1966.

His documentary film “Margaret Mead’s New Guinea Journal,” about the anthropologist’s return to the village of Peri 40 years after she had first studied it, was broadcast in 1968. His film “The Triumph of Christy Brown” aired in 1970. Daniel Day-Lewis, in researching his Oscar-winning role as Mr. Brown for the 1989 movie “My Left Foot,” studied the Gilbert film and met with Mr. Gilbert.

In the decades after “An American Family,” the Louds and the Raymonds were involved in a follow-up program and an anniversary compilation that was released on DVD. The Raymonds were also consultants for “Cinema Verite,” a 2011 HBO film based on the making of “An American Family.”

The film, which starred James Gandolfini as Mr. Gilbert, suggested that Mr. Gilbert and Mrs. Loud had an affair during the filming, perpetuating a rumor that both repeatedly denied.

“I never touched the woman,” Mr. Gilbert said in his 2013 interview with The Times, noting that he had emphasized this during numerous meetings with Mr. Gandolfini before the movie was shot.

Both the Louds and Mr. Gilbert hired lawyers to complain about the film, and the Louds reached a financial settlement with HBO. Mr. Gilbert said he had decided not to pursue the matter.

Perhaps the most surprising development in the years after the show aired is that Bill and Pat Loud resumed living together. Lance Loud died at 50 in 2001, and one of his dying wishes was that his parents would reunite. The Louds did not remarry. Bill Loud died in 2018 at 97.

“An American Family” had plenty of fans when it aired, and the Louds and Mr. Gilbert both received letters from people who said that the events in the show resembled struggles in their own families.

Ms. Mead, the anthropologist, was among those who attended an early screening, and she liked what she saw.

“It’s an extraordinary series,” she wrote to Mr. Gilbert. “Nothing like it has ever been done, and I think it may be as important for our time as were the invention of the drama and the novel for earlier generations — a new way for people to understand themselves.”

But even as many people say his work helped inspire a new culture of exposure, Mr. Gilbert became reclusive. In 2013, he was harshly critical of the current genre of reality television.

“That is not reality television,” he said. “What they’re doing is they’re using real people, but they’re scripting the shows. Reality television is basically cheap television. ‘An American Family’ was the honest-to-God reality. I didn’t script a thing. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t negotiate anything. I didn’t manipulate anything.”

Julia Carmel contributed reporting.


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