UPDATED: Louis Zamperini, the World War II hero and former Olympic long distance runner, has died. The subject of Angelina Jolie‘s upcoming sophomore directorial effort Unbroken, Zamperini was 97. Universal, which announced his passing this morning, had developed the Unbroken project for close to 55 years when it finally got off the ground with Jolie signed to direct in December 2012. The script is based on Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, by Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand. Zamperini was a Depression era kid who became a track prodigy and was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team that traveled to Berlin for the 1936 games. He didn’t medal, but was so impressive that Hitler asked to meet him. The 1940 Olympics in Tokyo were cancelled due to the war, and in 1941, Zamperini enlisted in the Air Force. When his plane went down in the Pacific during a rescue mission, Zamperini and two other crew mates survived on a raft in the hot sun for 47 days. They were ultimately caught by the Japanese Navy, beginning a terrifying term of captivity that lasted until the end of the war in 1945. Universal first bought Zamperini’s rights back in the 1950s.
As Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr has written, “Few movies gestate as long as this one, but it’s clear from Hillenbrand’s remarkable book that it was wise to wait. Zamperini had a lot of work to do to make himself whole again after enduring an ordeal that would break even the strongest of men.” Universal screened very impressive footage of Unbroken at Cine Europe in Barcelona two weeks ago, and at CinemaCon in March. The movie stars Jack O’Connell as the younger Zamperini along with Jai Courtney, Garrett Hedlund and Domhnall Gleeson. It’s due for release on December 25 this year. Shortly after that, Zamperini was to be the Grand Marshall at the 2015 Rose Parade in January. Rose Parade organizer Tournament of Roses said today it is “committed to honoring” Zamperini as Grand Marshal.
A statement from Universal Pictures said, “We are so profoundly sad at this moment and all of our thoughts and prayers are with the Zamperini family. Louis was truly one of a kind. He lived the most remarkable life, not because of the many unbelievable incidents that marked his near century’s worth of years, but because of the spirit with which he faced every one of them. Confronting challenges that would cause most of us to surrender, Louie always persevered and always prevailed, and he spent the better part of his lifetime sharing the message that you could do the same. His example of grace, dignity and resilience inspired all of us lucky enough to know him and the millions who got to know him from the pages of Laura’s book. We move forward to the release of Unbroken with a renewed sense of responsibility in bringing Louie’s abundant life and indomitable spirit to the screen. Now more than ever, we join Angelina in honoring the lessons and legacy of this extraordinary man who has meant so much to so many.”
Jolie said: “It is a loss impossible to describe. We are all so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him. We will miss him terribly.”
The family said, “Having overcome insurmountable odds at every turn in his life, Olympic runner and World War II hero Louis Zamperini has never broken down from a challenge. He recently faced the greatest challenge of his life with a life-threatening case of pneumonia. After a 40-day long battle for his life, he peacefully passed away in the presence of his entire family, leaving behind a legacy that has touched so many lives. His indomitable courage and fighting spirit were never more apparent than in these last days.”
Discovery Channel said today it will re-air Adrift: 47 Days With Sharks, a 2012 docu detailing Zamperini and his crew members’ ordeal on that raft in the Pacific. The docu will air Sunday at 4 PM ET/PT.