Leon Gast, Oscar-Winning Documentarian Behind 'When We Were Kings,' Dies at 85

Leon Gast
Randall Michelson/Getty Images

Leon Gast

It took him more than two decades to get his film about the fabled Ali-Foreman fight in Africa to the screen.

Leon Gast, the celebrated Oscar-winning documentarian behind When We Were Kings, which chronicled the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, has died. He was 85.

Gast died Monday, according to his friend and fellow documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple. No other details of his death were immediately available.

Gast also executive produced Bill Siegel's 2013 PBS documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali, which was awarded a news and documentary Emmy. His final film, Manny (2014), co-directed with Ryan Moore, centered on another champion boxer, Manny Pacquiao.

When We Were Kings (1996) received special jury recognition at Sundance en route to winning the best documentary Oscar and a Spirit Award. The film tells the story of how Ali reclaimed the heavyweight title in Kinshasa, Zaire, with a stunning eight-round knockout of the younger, heavily favored Foreman.

Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, Gast attended Snyder High School and graduated from Columbia University before embarking on a career in still photography.

In 1974, he was in Kinshasa to shoot a music festival when he decided to focus on the Ali-Foreman fight instead. He returned with 300,000 feet of film but lacked the resources to complete a documentary, leading him to take gigs working on other docs including The Grateful Dead Movie (1977), which he co-directed with Jerry Garcia, and Hell's Angels Forever (1983), which he co-directed with Richard Chase and Kevin Keating.

Legal challenges further delayed the release of the Ali-Foreman film. "[Boxing promoter] Don King sued, [distributor] Hank Schwarz sued, [music promoter] Lloyd Price sued," Gast told The Jersey Journal newspaper in 2011. "David Sonenberg, the producer, tied up all the rights in 1996, then we went to Sundance."

Some two decades after the Rumble in the Jungle, When We Were Kings was released by Gramercy Pictures and changed Gast's life and career.

His subsequent projects included Smash His Camera (2010), a portrait of pioneering paparazzo Ron Galella, for which Sundance named him best director of a documentary.

Gast is survived by his wife, Geri.