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

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Jack Willis, a journalist and tv govt who received a number of Emmys and a Polk Award for his revolutionary movies and information and documentary programming in the course of the embryonic years of cable and public broadcasting, died on Feb. 9 in Zurich. He was 87.

He underwent assisted suicide at a clinic there, his spouse, Mary Pleshette Willis, stated. He lived in Manhattan.

When he was in his late 30s, Mr. Willis broke his neck in a physique browsing accident that quickly left him a quadriplegic earlier than he miraculously recovered, his spouse stated, inspiring a tv film. However after a half century, the accidents have been taking their toll. Six years in the past, he broke his hip and started utilizing a wheelchair, she stated.

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From 1971 to 1973, Mr. Willis was director of programming and manufacturing for WNET, the general public tv station in New York, the place he launched revolutionary native information protection as govt producer of “The 51st State,” a program that took its title from the zany 1969 mayoral marketing campaign of the writer Norman Mailer, who proposed that New York Metropolis secede from New York State.

This system, which received an Emmy Award, targeted on communities reasonably than the extra conventional fare of the nightly native information.

“He pioneered in-depth native protection of New York’s outer boroughs on WNET, specializing in long-ignored and disenfranchised minorities and immigrants, typically letting them communicate for themselves,” stated Stephen B. Shepard, former editor in chief of Enterprise Week and founding dean of the Metropolis College of New York Graduate Faculty of Journalism. “For Jack, it was all the time concerning the individuals affected by authorities selections.”

Mr. Willis was an govt producer of one other Emmy-winning collection, “The Nice American Dream Machine,” a weekly 90-minute program on PBS. The tv critic John J. O’Connor of The New York Occasions, writing in 1971, stated this system had been conceived as “a free‐kind program that would provide the viewer worthwhile bits and items of humor, controversy, leisure, investigative reporting, opinion, documentary and theatrical sketches.”

“It has been referred to as a hodgepodge of the good and the trite,” he added, however concluded that it was “one of the thrilling and imaginative segments of tv to come back alongside this season.”

Wanting again, Mr. Willis himself advised The Occasions in 2020: “It was a good time in public tv. When you thought it, you would do it.”

In 1963, he directed his first documentary, “The Streets of Greenwood,” a 20-minute movie a few voter-registration drive within the Mississippi Delta. Collaborating with two buddies, Phil Wardenburg and John Reavis, Mr. Willis shot it with a digicam he had borrowed from the people singer Pete Seeger, whose live performance in a cotton discipline was featured within the movie.

In 1979, Mr. Willis shared the George Polk Award for finest documentary with Saul Landau for “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang.” The movie targeted on the journalist Paul Jacobs’s investigation of radiation hazards from atomic testing in Nevada within the Fifties and ’60s and the federal authorities’s efforts to suppress info on its menace to public well being.

Two different movies he produced — “Lay My Burden Down” (1966), concerning the plight of tenant farmers in rural Alabama, and “Each Seventh Youngster” (1967), questioning tax subsidies and different authorities advantages for Catholic training — have been proven on the New York Movie Pageant.

Mr. Willis wrote, directed and produced “Appalachia: Wealthy Land Poor Folks” (1968), which uncovered grinding poverty largely precipitated, the movie argued, by company greed, racism and ineffective native authorities.

Mr. Willis’s dedication to civil rights was mirrored in his enduring friendship with the singer Harry Belafonte, an activist within the motion, who described Mr. Willis in an e-mail as “a soul brother” whose “mind and humor, mixed along with his courageousness, make him one of the treasured individuals I’ve ever identified.”

“For these on the political left,” Mr. Belafonte added, “he was dwelling proof of the proverb, ‘You may cage the singer however not the track.’”

Jack Lawrence Willis was born on June 20, 1934, in Milwaukee to Louis Willis, a producer of ladies’s sneakers, and Libbie (Feingold) Willis, a homemaker. The household moved to California when he was 9.

He earned a bachelor’s diploma in political science in 1956 from the College of California, Los Angeles, the place he additionally performed shortstop on the varsity baseball group. He favored to recall that he was recruited by a Boston Pink Sox minor-league group.

Mr. Willis dropped out of U.C.L.A. Faculty of Regulation to serve within the Military for 2 years, then graduated in 1962 and moved to New York, the place he hoped to attach with a job instructing in Africa or the Center East.

Whereas ready for a job overseas that by no means materialized, he labored briefly in tv for Allen Funt’s “Candid Digital camera” and David Susskind’s “Open Finish.”

He ran a film manufacturing firm in California, then was employed as vp for programming and manufacturing at CBS Cable, a short-lived however well-received performing arts channel.

From 1990 to 1997, Mr. Willis was president of KTCA, the general public tv station in Minneapolis-St. Paul, then returned to New York, the place, working for George Soros’s Open Society Institute, he developed a media program. In 1999, he was a founding father of Hyperlink TV, a nonprofit satellite tv for pc TV community. He retired in 2011.

Along with his spouse, he’s survived by their two daughters, Sarah Willis and Kate Willis Ladell; three grandchildren; and his brother, Richard.

Mr. Willis and his spouse wrote a guide, “… However There Are All the time Miracles” (1974), about his body-surfing accident in 1969 off Southampton, N.Y. That they had been planning to marry when a crashing wave broke his neck and left him paralyzed from the chest down. He was advised he would by no means stroll once more.

After two operations and 6 months of inpatient rehabilitation, he walked out of Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Drugs in Manhattan. The couple married a 12 months later.

His story was tailored right into a TV movie, “Some Form of Miracle” (1979), with a screenplay by the couple. They wrote and produced different movies collectively.

Shortly earlier than he died, Ms. Willis stated, her husband advised her that the accident had “taught me to place every thing in perspective — together with the worry of failure.” He admitted to no regrets, she stated, “besides,” she quoted him as saying, “for taking that wave and turning down the Boston Pink Sox.”

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