John Korty, director of 'Miss Jane Pittman,' is dead at 85

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John Korty, director of 'Miss Jane Pittman,' is dead at 85
The filmmaker John Korty in an undated family photo. Korty, a director best known for ambitious made-for-television projects, including the 1974 film “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” which won nine Emmy Awards, died on March 9, 2022, at his home in Port Reyes Station, Calif. He was 85. The Korty Family via The New York Times.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- John Korty, a director best known for ambitious made-for-television projects, including the 1974 film “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” which won nine Emmy Awards, died March 9 at his home in Port Reyes Station, California. He was 85.

His brother, Doug Korty, said the cause was vascular dementia.

“Miss Jane Pittman,” a CBS presentation based on the Ernest Gaines novel in which a Black woman recounts more than a century’s worth of memories, featured an acclaimed performance by Cicely Tyson as the title character. John J. O’Connor, reviewing the film in The New York Times, called it “a splendid night for television.”

“John Korty’s direction is cool and restrained,” he added, “never underlining and always avoiding what could easily be mawkish.”

The Emmys that the film won included one for Korty for best directing of a single program, comedy or drama.

Korty also won both an Oscar and an Emmy for “Who Are the Debolts? And Where Did They Get 19 Kids?,” a documentary about a couple whose many children included hard-to-place adopted ones with disabilities or other challenges. U.S. television networks were not interested in the documentary when Korty first offered it; it was initially released as a film in Japan, then shown at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1977, where it received a standing ovation.

That brought it an Oscar for best documentary feature, but Korty still wanted to get it in front of TV audiences. With some persuasion from Henry Winkler, whose role as Fonzie on “Happy Days” had made him one of the network’s biggest stars, ABC finally broadcast a cut-down version in late 1978; that version won the Emmy for outstanding individual achievement for an informational program.

Although Korty also directed lighter fare and the occasional Hollywood feature, including “Oliver’s Story,” the 1978 follow-up to the hit 1970 movie “Love Story,” he gravitated toward television movies that touched on social issues.

In addition to “Miss Jane Pittman,” which covered a century’s worth of the Black experience, he directed “Go Ask Alice” (1973), about teenage drug addiction; “Farewell to Manzanar” (1976), about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; “Second Sight: A Love Story” (1984), about a blind woman; “Resting Place” (1986), about a family’s attempt to have a Black officer who was killed in Vietnam buried in his hometown’s all-white cemetery; and “Eye on the Sparrow” (1987), about a blind couple trying to adopt.

“I wouldn’t give up television movies,” Korty told the Times in 1986. “There is nothing like the response you get. Fifty million people saw ‘Jane Pittman’ in one night. That’s very different from even the biggest hit movie.”

In the best of his television work, Korty sought to illuminate subjects and perspectives not often addressed in the mainstream. In an essay he wrote for the San Francisco Examiner in 1978, he said that was his hope for the “Debolts” film, in which he showed the children’s disabilities in unflinching detail — rare for TV at the time.

“It seems that most physically handicapped people have their greatest struggles not with their crutches, but with their identities — being accepted as individuals rather than as a distasteful class of outcasts,” he wrote. “We hope that by the end of our film the audience will forget who is on crutches and who isn’t.”

John Van Cleave Korty was born June 22, 1936, in Lafayette, Indiana. His father, Richard, was an engineer, and his mother, Mary (Van Cleave) Korty, was a nurse.

“I started drawing when I was 5 years old,” Korty said at a 2013 panel discussion of his work, “and for many, many years, I thought I was going to be what you’d call a commercial artist.”

But in 11th grade, a teacher showed the class some of the innovative animated films of Norman McLaren, and Korty found a new interest. He soon made his first animated film, but, as he told the Abilene Reporter-News of Texas in 1986, he could not afford new film stock. Instead, he somehow obtained a reel of a Mickey Mouse cartoon and dumped bleach on it in his parents’ bathtub to erase the images, then hand-painted images on its 2,600 frames. The trick worked, he said, but it took him a week to scrub the bathtub clean.

He earned a bachelor’s degree at Antioch College in Ohio, where he continued to experiment with animation. In about 1963, he settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he set up his own studio. One of his earliest professional efforts, “Breaking the Habit,” a documentary about smoking produced in cooperation with the American Cancer Society, was nominated for the short-subject documentary Oscar in 1965.

Korty directed the independent features “The Crazy-Quilt” (1966), “Funnyman” (1967) and “riverrun” (1968) before he made his first television movies, drawing some critical acclaim and the attention of other young filmmakers who were interested in working outside the Hollywood system. Among them were Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, who came to visit his setup in 1968.

“They showed up in two station wagons, and when Francis walked in, his mouth dropped open,” Korty told the Marin Independent Journal in 2011. “He said, ‘My God, you’ve done exactly what we want to do: get out of Hollywood and set up a studio. If you can do it, we can do it.’”

A year later, Coppola and Lucas would found their American Zoetrope studio in San Francisco. Korty had an office there for several years and went on to work with Lucas. He and Charles Swenson directed “Twice Upon a Time,” an animated feature made with Lucas’ Lucasfilm company in 1983, and the next year, Korty directed “Caravan of Courage,” a Lucasfilm TV movie based on the Ewok creatures from the “Star Wars” movie “Return of the Jedi.”

Although the success of “Miss Jane Pittman” brought Korty offers to direct Hollywood films, he rarely accepted. “Oliver’s Story,” which he directed in 1978, was an exception. It was a bigger-budget movie than he normally attempted, with big stars — Ryan O’Neal, Candice Bergen — and Korty was not entirely comfortable.

“It’s the first movie I’ve ever made that I’ve felt not a part of,” he told The Sacramento Bee in December 1978 as the early reviews, many of them unflattering, were coming in. “I know I put things in this movie that I liked and the audience wouldn’t — and vice versa.”

Korty’s marriages to Carol Tweedie in 1959 and Beulah Chang in 1965 ended in divorce. In 1989, he married Jane Silvia, who survives him, along with his brother; a sister, Nancy Korty; two sons from his second marriage, Jonathan and David; a son from his third marriage, Gabriel; and three grandchildren.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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