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Mel Stuart, Documentarian and 'Willy Wonka' Director, Dies at 83

UPDATED: The Emmy winner, an associate of David L. Wolper, also is known for “Four Days in November,” about the JFK assassination, and the poignant telefilm “Bill,” starring Mickey Rooney.

Mel Stuart, the Emmy-winning filmmaker and documentarian who tackled such serious subjects as the assassination of John F. Kennedy and mental illness but is perhaps best known for directing the whimsical Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, has died. He was 83.

Madeline Stuart told The Associated Press that her father died Thursday night of cancer at his home in Los Angeles.

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During the 1960s and '70s, Stuart was associated with David L. Wolper, with whom he established a base of West Coast documentary production at a time when New York filmmakers and TV networks' news divisions dominated the field.

Stuart's documentaries during those years include the Oscar-nominated Four Days in November (1964), which chronicles JFK's assassination in Dallas (in the film, he takes the viewer along with a neighbor of assasin Lee Harvey Oswald as he follows the route he took driving Oswald to work that fateful day); The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1968); and The Making of the President 1960, for which he shared an Emmy in 1964 with Wolper and writer Theodore White. He explored subsequent campaigns in 1964 and 1968.

Stuart's groundbreaking 1973 film Wattstax, which features hilarious commentary from comedian Richard Pryor, focused on the Wattstax music festival of the previous year and Los Angeles' Watts community in the aftermath of the 1965 riots. His George Plimpton and the New York Philharmonic (1968) follows the journalist rehearsing with the orchestra.

By 1980, he was an independent producer and director whose credits include portraits for PBS' American Masters on artist Man Ray and writer-director Billy Wilder.

Stuart also produced or directed various historical dramas including Ruby and Oswald (1978) and The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal (1979) and the touching 1981 CBS telefilm Bill, starring Mickey Rooney as mentally challenged man attempting to live on his own after leaving an institution. The film won a Golden Globe and Peabody Award and earned Rooney a Golden Globe and an Emmy.

The Hobart Shakespeareans, airing on PBS in 2005, was Stuart's profile of a teacher in inner-city Los Angeles whose fifth-grade class each year performed a play by William Shakespeare.

The 1971 musical fantasy Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder, was Stuart's response to a young reader of the Roald Dahl children's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That fan was Stuart's daughter Madeline, who asked her dad to make a movie of the book she loved. With Wilder as Willy (and 11-year-old Madeline in a cameo role as a student in a classroom scene), it became an enduring family favorite.

Other directing efforts included Stuart's 1969 comedy-romance, If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, starring Suzanne Pleshette and Ian McShane; the 1970 comedy I Love My Wife, starring Elliott Gould and Brenda Vaccaro; and the 1976 telefilm Brenda Starr, toplined by Jill St. John as the famed comic book heroine.

He also executive produced the 1980s ABC series Ripley's Believe It or Not, hosted by Jack Palance.

Born on Sept. 2, 1928, in New York City, Stuart attended New York University, where he set aside his early aspirations to be a composer in favor of a career in filmmaking.

Before joining forces with the Wolper Organization, he worked as an editor for NBC and was a researcher for CBS News' 1950s documentary series The 20th Century, which was hosted and narrated by Walter Cronkite.

Stuart talked about the different styles of documentary filmmaking that emerged in the 1960s during a 2004 interview with documentary.org.

“There was a split between the East Coast and the West Coast,” he said. “I’m not saying it was a conscious split, but the major documentary makers in the East — Bob Drew, D.A. Pennebaker, Al Maysles — were more interested in cinema verite. They tried to be as true to the situation as possible, trying to capture the scene just the way it was. Out here in Hollywood, because we were so involved with retrospective, as well as live shooting shows, we felt that if we could do music, which we believed in, and sound effects and a narrative track and inner monologue, we would do it.”

In addition to his daughter, Stuart is survived by sons Peter, who also was in Willy Wonka, and Andrew, a literary agent.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.