Craig Gilbert, a documentarian whose candid and controversial 1973 PBS series An American Family would later be credited as a forerunner of reality TV (to his chagrin), died April 10 in New York City following a brief illness. He was 94.
The director’s death was announced on his official website and confirmed by friend John Mulholland, director of the 2013 documentary Cooper & Hemingway: The True Gen, executive produced by Gilbert.
“Craig had been in good shape until late February,” Mulholland told Deadline, “when he started to fail. In early April, it became difficult for him to get out of bed.” Mulholland said Gilbert died in his sleep, with a medical examiner ruling natural causes. He said Gilbert had not come into physical contact with anyone for six weeks other than home health aides, who have tested negative for COVID-19.
Gilbert was a producer at New York public television station WNET when he pitched the idea of a cinéma vérité-style documentary on a typical American family. WNET liked the idea, and Gilbert got more than $1 million in financing.
And in the Louds of Santa Barbara, Gilbert got a family that might have been typical but certainly not in the ways to which TV audiences had become accustomed. During months of fly-on-the-wall filming in 1971, Gilbert and his camera crew Alan and Susan Raymond caught Bill and Pat Loud, along with their five children Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah and Michele in moments both mundane and, for TV, groundbreaking.
Two moments in particular made headlines: Matriarch Pat Loud calmly asking husband Bill for a divorce, and 21-year-old Lance coming out as gay. In the time-capsule-worthy second episode, the outwardly sophisticated Pat has her cool put to the test when she visits Lance at New York’s infamously seedy Chelsea Hotel. As Lance describes the sounds of the city outside his window, Pat cracks, “It looks like one firecracker might do it for this place.”
The 12-episode series, which ran on PBS stations in January, February and March of 1973, became a national phenomenon, with the family interviewed on The Dick Cavett Show, gracing the cover of Newsweek as “The Broken Family” and endlessly and harshly scrutinized by both press and public. Pre-dating MTV’s The Real World by more than 20 years, An American Family presented a slice of life than not even fans of The Bunkers could have anticipated.
Gilbert would always dismiss the reality TV comparisons, insisting that An American Family was neither scripted nor manipulated. His website notes, “He bristled whenever he would hear or read that An American Family was the first reality show: ‘No, no, no! Not a chance.’”
The attention, along with the family’s frequent claims of Gilbert presenting a distorted view of its home life, marked both the beginning and the end of Gilbert’s high-profile career. In a 1982 article quoted by The New York Times, Gilbert wrote, “As its producer, I was accused of being a Svengali-like manipulator, a crass invader of privacy, and a brooding East Coast neurotic with a compelling need to foist my twisted vision of life on an unsuspecting public….I retreated from life. I told myself this retreat would be temporary; I would lick my wounds, regroup, and come out fighting. But of course that didn’t happen.”
Gilbert, whose credits prior to An American Family included documentaries on Margaret Mead and Christy Brown (later the subject of the film drama My Left Foot), would never direct again. According to The Times, he lived his final decades alone in a West Village apartment on a family inheritance.
Gilbert would have one more moment in the national spotlight, though, with Cinéma Vérité, the 2011 HBO dramatized account of An American Family‘s filming. Gilbert was played by the late James Gandolfini. In an interview at the time, Gandolfini said, “I think Craig was so astounded that the Loud family got so destroyed and he got so destroyed by people. They went after the Loud family so viciously. All they were, really, were regular people and their family was not that much different than anybody elses. He was just trying to document it and they went after both of them so viciously that he said the hell with this.”