Bud Greenspan R.I.P.

Olympic Filmmaker Bud Greenspan Dies At 84 In NYC

Greenspan’s Best-Known Work Was ‘The Olympiad,’ The Culmination Of 10 Years Of Research

JIM LITKE, AP Sports Writer

Posted: 7:02 am PST December 26, 2010
Updated: 5:26 pm PST December 26, 2010

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.

It’s another sad day. We have lost a great friend of athletics. Bud Greenspan was a wonderful man, with a laconic nature and fertile sense of humour. He appreciated the absurdities of life and was ever ready with a quip for the occasion. He was a perennial at the Olympic Games, entertaining as much as he enjoyed being entertained by stories guys like me would mention to him half in the hope he might use some part of the tale. I loved his work. His film of the Sydney Olympics is tremendous, especially the chapter on the Greatest Night of Athletics, 25 September 2000 when Cathy Freeman and Haile Gebrselassie, among others, won gold in front of a record 112,000 crowd. Goodbye Bud. And thanks for the memories.

Where can his films be found?

Bud Greenspan, Olympic documentarian, dies at 84
Olympic filmmaker Bud Greenspan, who presented his subjects ‘as people first and athletes second,’ won eight Emmys and a Peabody, as well as the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Order.

Bud Greenspan earned eight Emmy awards and a Peabody for his Cappy Productions films, most of which were Olympic documentaries. (Showtime)

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By Mike Kupper, Special to the Los Angeles Times

December 26, 2010, 7:37 a.m.
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Bud Greenspan, award-winning filmmaker, writer, character and, arguably, the world’s No. 1 fan of the Olympics, has died. He was 84.

Greenspan died Christmas Day at his home in New York City, his companion Nancy Beffa said. He had Parkinson’s disease.

Easily recognizable by his trademarks — big, black-rimmed glasses pushed up on his shaven head, a pipe and, depending on the season, a beige corduroy sport coat over a black turtleneck or a safari jacket over a polo shirt — Greenspan earned eight Emmy awards, a Peabody and generally high praise for his Cappy Productions films, most of which were Olympic documentaries. He was the recipient of an Olympic Order, the International Olympic Committee’s highest award, and in 2004 was inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame as a special contributor.

Greenspan viewed the Games not necessarily as they were, more as he thought they should be. “They’re two weeks of love,” he told ESPN in 2002. “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. … They bring things forward that they don’t ordinarily do.”

Starting with the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, Greenspan was the official Olympic filmmaker seven times, also recording Summer Games in 1996 in Atlanta and in 2000 in Sydney and Winter Olympics in 1988 at Calgary, 1994 at Lillehammer, 1998 at Nagano and 2002 at Salt Lake City. And when he wasn’t the official documentarian, he acted, with his crew, as an independent filmmaker, which suited Greenspan just fine. Because if there was one thing he reveled in, it was being independent.

Whatever else might be going on at any Olympic gathering — officiating scandals, cheating, doping, nationalistic and egotistic displays — Greenspan kept his lens focused on the athletes and the competition, looking for and presenting film stories that struck a chord with viewers, whether sports fans or casual watchers. He prided himself on skipping over what was being presented on network TV coverage in favor of tales of courage, valor and resilience, usually presented in stark simplicity.

“I’m a storyteller,” he said often. "We like to hear people say, ‘Gee, I didn’t know that.’ "

Brushing aside criticism that his work was journalistically incomplete and politically naive, his usual response was, “I choose to concentrate 100% of my time on the 90% of the Olympics that is good. … I find the goodness in people, and I present them as people first and athletes second.”

He was especially partial to stories involving athletic perseverance, citing a pair of runners as prime examples, Tanzanian marathoner John Steven Aquari and British distance runner Dave Moorcroft.

In the 1968 Mexico City Games, Aquari was the last man to finish the long race, hobbling into the darkening stadium more than an hour after the early finishers, his right leg bleeding and hastily bandaged, completing the marathon to the cheers of what few fans were left. Asked later by Greenspan why he had continued running, Aquari answered, “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race. My country sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”

Moorcroft entered the 5,000-meter run in Los Angeles as the world-record holder, but also having recently suffered a stress fracture in his leg, a bout with hepatitis and a pelvic problem that interfered with his stride. He quickly fell off the pace and into last place, sprinting in ungainly fashion to keep from being lapped as the race ended. When Greenspan asked Moorcroft later why he had not quit, the runner replied, “Once you quit, it’s easy to do it again. I did not want to set a precedent for the future.”

Greenspan’s opinion? “People don’t pay enough attention to those who come in fourth, seventh or 10th. It amazes me every time that someone can lose by a fraction of a second and no one pays attention to them.”

Greenspan knew firsthand about perseverance. Born Jonah J. Greenspan on Sept. 18, 1926, in New York City, he grew up with a lisp, which followed him into adolescence. Yet he chose to go into radio. He cured himself of the lisp and, by the time he was 21, having graduated from New York University, was sports director at WMGM, then the biggest sports station in the country. He also worked in the print medium as a sportswriter and in TV, first as a reporter, later as a producer.

It was at the opera, however, that Greenspan developed his Olympic interest. Working occasionally as a non-singing extra at the Metropolitan Opera, he learned that a fellow extra, John Davis, had won a gold medal in weightlifting at the London Games in 1948. When Davis went to Helsinki to defend his title in 1952, Greenspan was there as a sportswriter and, taking a chance, hired a Finnish crew to film Davis’ winning effort.

After spending $5,000 to produce a 15-minute short, he went looking for a buyer. Coincidentally, the U.S. State Department was looking for examples of successful African Americans to counter Soviet propaganda during the Korean War about American racism, and it bought Greenspan’s film for $35,000. "I thought, ‘This is a good business,’ " Greenspan told the Los Angeles Times in 1999.

By the 1960s, Greenspan was peddling feature-length sports films, and in 1967, with his wife and business partner, Constance Anne “Cappy” Petrash, he formed his Cappy Productions company. “Cappy was a non-fan, but her outlook was perfect for the kind of thing we were doing,” Greenspan told the Wall Street Journal in 1988. “She’d ask our subjects what books they read or whether they cooked, and the answers usually turned out to be wonderful. They gave our work a dimension others lacked.”

Cappy died of cancer in 1983, a year before Greenspan’s first Games as official documentarian. Recalled Greenspan, “We didn’t have children and she would say, ‘The films will be our kids. … They’ll live long after we’re here.’ And that, in a sense, is immortality, and that is exactly what I think we’re here for, to leave something for this generation and generations not yet born.”

Greenspan later hired Beffa to work with him, and she eventually became his business partner and companion.

Besides Beffa, he is survived by a sister, Sarah Rosenberg.

Kupper is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer.

Cappy Productions, Inc.
428 East 77th Street Front 1
(Outside Lower Level)
New York, NY 10075-2363
Tel: 212 249-7037
Fax: 212 249-7585


By Alan Abrahamson
3 Wire Sports
It is standard practice in the world of journalism to write obituaries long in advance of the day someone dies. That way, when the day comes, you don’t have to wrestle with the emotion of the moment.

I never did get around to writing Bud Greenspan’s obituary. I simply couldn’t do it. He had been ill with Parkinson’s disease but I just could not confront the inevitable.

Over the years, Bud and I — and Nancy Beffa, his longtime companion — had become way more than professional colleagues. We had become good friends.

And Bud was always — always — one of the most vital people I ever had the pleasure and privilege of knowing. You just had to enjoy being around him, his glasses perched always — always — on his forehead. The man could tell a story, he loved to tell stories and he had stories to tell.

So apologies in advance. This column is really, really hard.

Bud passed away Saturday. He was 84.

The history books will say that Bud was one of the foremost filmmakers in Olympic history. In the mid-1980s, he received what’s called the Olympic order, the highest award in Olympic circles, the then-International Olympic Committee president, Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain saying that Bud had even then “been called the foremost producer, writer and director of Olympic films — more than that, he is an ever-lasting friend of the Olympic family.”

Bud was so much more than that.

The explosive growth that saw the Olympic rings become one of the most recognizable symbols around the world over the last half of the 20th century is arguably due to two factors — television and Bud Greenspan.

Television brought what happened on the track and in the pool in all those far-away places into your living room.

Through his films, Bud told you the stories of the athletes, wherever they were from. He made them real people. They had families, just like you and me. That their names didn’t sound quite like ours or maybe their clothes didn’t look like what we would wear or whatever — all that faded away.

Bud’s gift to us was simple but nonetheless profound. He reminded us all of our humanity.

That’s why his work is so powerful. And no matter how many times you see his films, the power endures.

In Bud’s world we are all the same. No matter what we look like or are shaped like or sound like, each of us is a human being imbued with potential and dignity.

“Bud Greenspan always understood that the athletes are at the center of the Olympic experience,” Peter Ueberroth, who ran the 1984 Los Angeles Games and then served from 2004 to 2008 as chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said late Saturday night.

“Their stories are the ones he told, and those stories reminded us of our shared humanity and the commitment to excellence that are at the core of the Olympic ideals around the world.”

In his Olympic films, Bud told dozens and dozens of stories. Perhaps none was as memorable as one of the first — the Tanzanian marathoner John Stephen Akhwari, who finished last, 57th, in the marathon at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Games.

As the story goes, John Stephen came in about an hour after the winner, Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia. John Stephen had injured his leg in a fall; his leg was bandaged and bloodied.

Why, Bud asked, didn’t you just give up?

Give up? Never, John Stephen replied.

My country, he said, didn’t send me seven-thousand miles to start a race. He said, they sent me seven-thousand miles to finish it.

“In his lifetime, through his work, he did more than any individual to bring the personal stories of Olympians into households around the world,” Mike Moran, who served as the U.S. Olympic Committee’s spokesman from 1978-2003, said Saturday night.

“His style never was out of date. What he produced will be watched decades from now by people who are or will be members of the Olympic family. No one else can ever do what he did. His contributions to what we refer to as Olympism are simply without precedent and Olympic athletes around the world owe him a huge debt of gratitude.”

When I think of Bud and Nancy, I think of course of all the great stories he told on film but also the great tales he shared in the times we hung out together — the back stories of how the films came together, the projects that didn’t work, the ones that worked better than they ever imagined, all of that.

We had some great times together. We laughed and laughed with Aussie broadcasting friend Tracey Holmes in Sydney in 2000. We were super-sober while taking in the scene of all the police dogs and the soldiers while we waited our turn to get into freezing-cold Olympic Stadium in Salt Lake City on opening night in 2002; for all his celebrity, Bud was just one more guy getting into the stadium that night, believe me. After we got through and into somewhere where it was warm — more laughs. As if Bud Greenspan was a threat to anyone.

In November 2007, the USOC endowed a scholarship at the USC School of Cinematic Arts to honor Bud and to encourage future filmmakers.

Donations should be sent to that scholarship fund.

As for flowers, Bud always was fond of relating a quote from another pioneer, Red Barber, one of the great baseball play-by-play men: “If you’re going to send someone flowers, make sure they’re around to smell them.”

The world is diminished tonight because Bud is no longer with us. Godspeed, my friend.

To make a donation to the USC School of Cinematic Arts
please contact:

Erica Hutchinson
Associate Director Visitor Center and Community Relations

United States Olympic Committee

1 Olympic Plaza

Colorado Springs, CO 80909

719-866-4604 [office]


Cappy Productions, Inc.
428 East 77th Street Front 1
(Outside Lower Level)
New York, NY 10075-2363
Tel: 212 249-7037
Fax: 212 249-7585