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Craig Gilbert, the creator of a groundbreaking 1973 documentary television series, “An American Family,” which examined the inner turmoil of a California family and came to be known as the first reality TV show, died April 10 at his home in New York City. He was 94.
The death was confirmed by John Mulholland, a filmmaker and friend, who did not know the precise cause.
Mr. Gilbert had worked in television for two decades before embarking on his ambitious series showing the real-life dramas of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, Calif. He interviewed about two-dozen families before he settled on the Louds, who seemed to be living the California dream, with a well-appointed house, five telegenic children, multiple cars and a swimming pool.
“The Louds are neither average nor typical,” Mr. Gilbert said in introducing the first episode of the series, which aired on Jan. 11, 1973. “No family is. They are not ‘the’ American family. They are simply ‘an’ American family.”
“The Brady Bunch” and other unthreatening family sitcoms were still on the air, but the dynamics of American families were being altered by women’s rights and other social forces. Moreover, Mr. Gilbert had just separated from his wife.
“The idea for the series was something out of my own life,” he told The Washington Post in 1973. “My marriage, my parents, television and really something about the country.”
A film crew spent seven months with the family from May 1971 to Jan. 1, 1972, capturing the marital discord between Bill and Pat Loud and their children’s bumpy journey toward adulthood.
More than 300 hours of film were edited into 12 one-hour episodes, presented in a cinema verité style without narration. The series was “based on the belief that there is considerable drama in the daily lives of ordinary citizens,” Mr. Gilbert wrote in an essay in 1982. “The citizens themselves may be unaware of this, as the Louds were, but it is there just the same, waiting to be captured by the peculiar alchemy of the camera in the hands of anyone with the ability to see and the patience to wait.”
Watched by more than 10 million people a week, “An American Family” was featured on magazine covers and television talk shows, as commentators debated whether the Louds were symbolic of a fraying social fabric.
The family’s oldest child, Lance Loud, was the first openly gay person to appear on television, leaving many viewers shocked. His mother accompanied him to a drag show in New York and tried, with varying degrees of sympathy and stoicism, to understand him.
“If I were you, I’d enjoy me while I last,” Lance told his mother in one episode. “Because, honey, I’m not going to last forever.” (He died in 2001 at age 50.)
During the series, the Louds’ house was almost consumed in a wildfire, and Bill Loud’s business — selling mining equipment — became increasingly shaky. Pat Loud pondered her deteriorating marriage, suspecting her husband of infidelity, and confronted him in a painfully direct scene after he returned from a business trip.
“I’ve spoken to a lawyer, and this is his card,” she says, as both of them keep their emotions under taut control. “And I’d like to have you move out, just like that.”
“Pat, I think it’s shortsighted on your part, really,” Bill Loud replies, in an even tone. He and Pat talk some more, as the camera focuses on his haunted face.
“Well, then,” he says, “I don’t have to unpack my bag, do I?”
By the time the series was shown, they were divorced.
When filming ended, Pat Loud wrote a letter to Mr. Gilbert, saying, “I think you’ve handled the film with as much kindness as is possible and still remained honest. I am, in short, simply astounded, enormously pleased and very proud.”
Some critics admired the searing honesty of “An American Family,” but others called the Louds “pathetic,” “spoiled” and “affluent zombies.”
“You cannot put human beings in an aquarium and expect them to act ‘normally,’ ” columnist Shana Alexander wrote in Newsweek.
By the time the family appeared on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1973, Pat Loud was complaining that the series “makes us look like a bunch of freaks and monsters . . . We’ve lost dignity, been humiliated, and our honor is in question.”
Mr. Gilbert was shaken by the response. He was accused of invading the family’s privacy and of having an affair with Pat Loud, which both of them vehemently denied.
He also had a falling-out with Alan and Susan Raymond, who did most of the filming and sound recording and accused Mr. Gilbert of manipulating the Loud family.
“Everything happened as it happened,” Mr. Gilbert told Newsday in 1988. “No tricks. No retakes. There’s more manipulation and staging in one segment of ‘60 Minutes’ than there is in 12 hours of ‘An American Family.’ ”
He went into seclusion and never produced another major project for television. He lived in California for a few years, and then settled in New York, leading a quiet life in Greenwich Village.
“What I did was — literally — turn off the phone, get into bed and pull the covers over my head,” he told Newsday.
Craig P. Gilbert was born Aug. 13, 1925, in New York. His father was a successful copyright lawyer who worked with songwriters, including Irving Berlin. His mother was a homemaker.
He graduated from the private Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., where one of his classmates and close friends was actor Jack Lemmon. Near the end of World War II, Mr. Gilbert served as an ambulance driver, helping evacuate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
“Not a day went by that he didn’t think about it,” Mulholland, his friend and fellow filmmaker, said in an interview.
Mr. Gilbert graduated from Harvard University in 1949, and then became a film editor with the March of Time newsreels and for the Emmy Award-winning “Victory at Sea” documentary series about the Navy during World War II.
He later worked as a writer and film editor, producing cultural programming for CBS and other outlets. In 1964, Mr. Gilbert joined WNET-TV, a newly formed public broadcasting station in New York, where he produced documentaries about anthropologist Margaret Mead and Christy Brown, a disabled Irish author and artist who could write and paint only by using the toes of one foot. Actor Daniel Day-Lewis consulted Mr. Gilbert before his Oscar-winning portrayal of Brown in the 1989 movie “My Left Foot.”
Mr. Gilbert and his wife, Suzanne Stater, separated in the early 1970s. She died in 2005. He had no immediate survivors.
In later years, Mr. Gilbert was an executive producer of documentaries by Mulholland and Richard Zampella. He was
James Gandolfini in a 2011 HBO film "Cinema Verite" about the making of “An American Family,” of which he was highly critical. … https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcvDHzx4nto
The unscripted documentary form that Mr. Gilbert helped create became known, for better or worse, as reality TV, with hundreds of descendants, ranging from “The Osbournes” to “Project Runway,” “Jersey Shore” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”
“An American Family” remained Mr. Gilbert’s lasting monument and his inescapable curse.
“I stand behind every frame of that series,” he said in 1988, “yet I understand why it made so many people uncomfortable. This was a film about all of us. About how we’re all trying, and usually failing, to make sense out of life. That’s a truth most of us are unwilling to confront — least of all on television.”