February 23, 2024

Robert M. Young, whose 70-year career included independent and studio documentaries, narrative features, and episodes of Battlestar: Galactica, died Tuesday in Los Angeles at 99. His death was confirmed in a Facebook post by his son.

Two of his films have recently been added to the Library of Congress Film Registry. They include ¡Alambrista! (1977), a film about the life of an undocumented Mexican immigrant, which won the Camera d’Or for best first film at Cannes, and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, (1982), one of Young’s eight films with actor Edward James Olmos. Based on a true story that inspired a corrido, it tells of a man on the run after a confrontation with police.

Both films are also part of the Criterion Collection.

Those films represented a recurring theme of Young’s career, one which showed his interest in bringing social issues to wider attention.

“We lose important people all the time, but then there are those who embodied a spirit that is truly original. Bob Young was one of those,” former Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper said in a statement to IndieWire.

“I fondly remember him as an indie cowboy…a rebel…and a believer in the power of cinema. His love of cinema was infectious and deep. He was always there to contribute in knowledge and talent to anyone lucky enough to be in his path. I was on his road many times and I felt lucky to know him. I also felt proud to celebrate him whenever he found his way to Sundance. I thought he would live forever… but now we must say a fond goodbye. I do it with gratitude for all he shared with the world.”

Robert Milton Young was born in New York. After attending MIT, he served in the Navy in the South Pacific as part of a photographic unit in World War II, then graduated from Harvard.

He began his career making scientific films, which led to early directing and cinematography credits on documentaries.

In 1960, working for NBC News, his film Sit-In, which contained footage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the early days of his civil rights movement, won a Peabody Award. It would lead to his involvement with Nothing but a Man, (1964), directed by Michael Roemer, for which he was cinematographer, cowriter and coproducer.

His first solo feature as director was Short Eyes (,1977), an independently-made adaptation of Miguel Piñero’s play, starring Bruce Davison as an accused child rapist in a New York jail. Alambrista! followed, then two-studio titles, Rich Kids and One-Trick Pony, the latter with Paul Simon.

His career included Extremities with Farrah Fawcett, Dominick and Eugene with Tom Hulce and Ray Liotta, Triumph of the Spirit with Willem Dafoe, and American Me, set among Mexican-American gangs in prison.

Young is survived by his wife Lili, sons Andrew, Nick, and Zack, daughters Melissa and Sarah, and nine grandchildren. Plans for a memorial are pending.

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