Leon Gast, the veteran filmmaker who won an Oscar for feature documentary for directing the 1996 photo “Rumble in the Jungle” When we were kings died on Monday. He was 85 years old.
The news was confirmed by the Woodstock Film Festival, of which Gast was a founding member of the advisory board and winner of the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award.
Gast also won a Spirit Award, a Sundance Special Jury Prize, and a DGA Award nomination for When we were kings which he also produced and edited. He told the fascinating story of the 1974 heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman held in Kinshasa, Zaire. The filmmaker then produced and directed The trials of Muhammad Ali (2013), broadcast the following year on PBS as under the Independent objective banner. Gast won an Emmy News & Documentary and an International Documentary Association Award for this project.
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Gast started his film career after working for an advertising agency in New York City and later as a photographer. The Woodstack Festival passed on this story that they told about entering the industry:
“What I needed first was a job in or around filmmaking. Any job. It didn’t matter. Then someone I met at a party gave me their Odyssey movie card. The first question of the interview was: “Do you have a valid driver’s license?” ‘Of course!’ I said, but got a cab fare first to deliver unprocessed footage to Movie Lab on West 46th Street, then the same fare to pick it up the next day as a working print. So? I befriended a taxi driver who gave me a receipt book. Of course, as a champion jay-walker I’d slash it faster than any cab could drive, hand over my $ 1.75 receipts times 15 or 20 ghost cab rides a week – add that to my colossal hundred dollar salary and the next thing you know, I bought myself a Ford Falcon.
Gast’s first non-fiction film projects were about music. He led Our latin thing (1972), on the then nascent Latin music scene in New York. A young assistant sound engineer named Barbara Kopple also worked on this photo. She would win two Oscars for feature documentary for Harlan County, United States (1976) and American dream (1990),
Gast also worked on the 1976 docu salsa and released a pair of feature films in 1974 about fundamental musical personalities: Celia Cruz and the Fania Allstars of Africa and BB King: live in Africa. Gast then co-edited a 1977 concert photo The Grateful Dead movie with band guitarist Jerry Garcia.
Later in his career, Gast directed and produced the feature documentaries Smash his camera (2010), on the life of a paparazzo; Manny (2104), about boxing icon Manny Pacquiao; and Sports dreams (2015), which followed three stories about the work and sacrifices involved in pursuing athletic dreams in America. He also produced and directed the basketball paper 1 love (2003) and Hells Angels forever (1983), on the famous motorcycle gang.
But Gast will probably be best remembered for When we were kings his fascinating look at the build-up, spectacle, and fight of October 29, 1974, which again pitted heavyweight champion, aging Foreman, but still the game Ali. Few gave the beloved ex-champion much chance to win, but he charmed the media and the masses in the build-up to the fight and ended up scoring a knockout in the eighth round – after starting the tactics “Rope-a-Dope”.
Gast said it took him 22 years to fund and edit When we were kings and it paid off with great reviews and Oscar win on documentaries about Nelson Mandela, Al Hirschfeld, George Seldes and Suzanne Farrell.
“Leon will be remembered for a lot of things,” the Woodstack Fest said in a statement today. “Through his colleagues, he will be remembered as a prolific and extraordinary filmmaker; a true master. Through his friends and family, he will be remembered as a gregarious, fun-loving, and unparalleled storyteller. The Woodstock Film Festival will hold him in our hearts as one of the best filmmakers and human beings we have had the privilege of knowing. Rest in peace, dear friend. “