Jack Willis, TV Producer and Empathetic Filmmaker, Dies at 87

Jack Willis, a journalist, and television executive

They won multiple Emmys and a Polk Award for their groundbreaking films, news. And documentaries during the early days of cable and public broadcasting died on February 9 in Zurich. He was 87. According to his missis, Mary Pleshette Willis, he lived helped in suicide at a local hospital. He lived in Manhattan. In his late thirties, Mr. Willis broke his neck in a bodysurfing accident that left him temporarily paralyzed before he miraculously recovered, his wife said, inspiring the TV movie. But half a century later, injuries took their toll. According to her, six years ago he broke his hip and started using a wheelchair.

From 1971 to 1973, Mr. Willis was director of programming and production for WNET. A public television station in New York City. Where he introduced groundbreaking local news coverage as executive producer of The 51st State. A program that takes its name from Campaign writer Norman Mailer in 1969 during his wild run for mayor. In which he proposed that New York secede from New York State.

The Emmy-winning schedule was community-focused sooner than the additional standard late-night regional report schedule.

“He pioneered WNET’s detailed local coverage of outlying New York City, focusing on long-ignored and disenfranchised minorities and immigrants, often letting them speak for themselves,” said Steven B. Shepard, former Business Week Editor-in-Chief and Founding Dean Graduate School of Journalism, City University of New York. “For Jack, it’s ever existed about individuals impacted by management conclusions.”

Mr. Willis was the executive producer of another Emmy-winning series, The Great Machine of the American Dream, a weekly 90-minute program on PBS. Television critic John J. O’Connor of The New York Times, noting in 1971, said that the schedule was planned to be “a gratis-form schedule that could show the witness proper pieces of comedy, discussion, recreation, investigative reporting.”, ideas, documentary, and dramatic graphics.

“It’s been called a hodgepodge of the genius and the banal,

“He added but concluded that it was “one of the most exciting and creative segments of TV this season. “Looking back, Mr. Willis himself told The Times in 2020: “It was a great time on public television. If you thought about it, you could do it.” In 1963, he made his first documentary, Streets of Greenwood, a 20-minute film about the voter registration campaign in the Mississippi Delta. In collaboration with two friends, Phil Wardenburg and John Reeves, Mr. Willis filmed it on a camera he borrowed from folk singer Pete Seeger, whose cotton field concert was shown in the film.

In 1979 Mr. Willis shared the George Polk Award

For Best Documentary with Saul Landau for Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang. The film focuses on journalist Paul Jacobs’s investigation of the radiation hazard from the Nevada atomic tests in the 1950s and 60s and the federal government’s efforts to suppress information about its threat to public health. Mr. Willis wrote, directed, and produced Appalachia: Rich Land, Poor (1968), which exposed extreme poverty, largely caused, the film claims, by corporate greed, racism, and ineffective local government.

Mr. Willis’s commitment to civil rights was reflected in his enduring friendship with singer Harry Belafonte,

A movement activist who described Mr. Willis in an email as a “soul brother” whose “intelligence and humor, combined with courage, make him one of the dearest people I have ever known.” “For the political left,” Mr. Belafonte added, “he was living proof of the proverb: ‘You can cage a singer, but not a song.’ Jack Lawrence Willis was born on June 20, 1934, in Milwaukee to Louis Willis, a women’s shoe manufacturer, and Libby (Feingold) Willis, a housewife. The family moved to California when he was 9 years old.

He received his bachelor’s degree in political science in 1956 from the University of California, Los Angeles, where he also played on the varsity baseball team. He liked to remember being hired by the Boston Red Sox farm team. Mr. Willis dropped out of UCLA Law School to serve in the military for two years, then graduated in 1962 and moved to New York, where he hoped to get a teaching job in Africa or the Middle East. In anticipation of an overseas job that never materialized, he briefly worked in television with Allen Fant’s Candid Camera and David Susskind’s Open End.

He ran a film production company in California,

 From 1990 to 1997, Mr. Willis was president of KTCA, a Minneapolis Street public television station. Paul, Minnesota, then returned to New York where, while working at the George Soros Open Society Institute, he developed a media program. In 1999, he was the founder of Link TV, a non-profit satellite television network. He retired in 2011. three grandchildren; and his brother Richard. Mr. Willis and his wife wrote the book But There Are Always Miracles (1974) about his 1969 body surfing accident near Southampton, New York.

After two surgeries and six months of inpatient rehabilitation,

He retired from the Rusk Institute for Restorative Medicine in Manhattan. The pair acquired matched a year later. His novel lived adjusted into the TV film Some Type of Miracle (1979), reported by the team. Together they wrote and produced other films. According to Ms. Willis, shortly before his death, her husband told her that the accident “taught me to put everything in perspective, including the fear of failure.” He admitted that he had no regrets, she said, “other than,” she quoted him as saying, “that he took the wave and gave up the Boston Red Sox.”

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