Jack Willis, a journalist and television director who won several Emmys and a Polk Award for his innovative films and news and documentary programs during the embryonic years of cable and public broadcasting, died on February 9 in Zurich. He was 87.
He was undergoing assisted suicide at a clinic there, said his wife, Mary Pleshette Willis. He lived in Manhattan.
In his late thirties, Mr. Willis broke his neck in a body-surfing accident, leaving him temporarily paralyzed before miraculously recovering, his wife said, which inspired a television movie. But after half a century, the injuries took their toll. Six years ago, he broke his hip and started using a wheelchair, she said.
From 1971 to 1973, Mr. Willis was director of programming and production for WNET, the public television station in New York, where he introduced innovative local news coverage as executive producer of “The 51st State,” a program taking its name from the 1969 campaign of the author Norman Mailer during his crazy run for mayor in which he proposed that New York City secede from New York State.
The Emmy Award-winning program focused on communities rather than the more traditional fare of nightly local news.
“He pioneered in-depth local coverage of New York’s suburbs on WNET, targeting long-ignored and disenfranchised minorities and immigrants, often letting them speak for themselves,” said Stephen B. Shepard, former editor-in-chief of Business Week and Founding Dean of the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. “For Jack, it has always been about the people affected by government decisions.”
mr. Willis was an executive producer of another Emmy-winning series, “The Great American Dream Machine,” a weekly 90-minute program on PBS. Writing in 1971, DailyExpertNews television critic John J. O’Connor said the program was conceived as “a free-form program that could provide the viewer with valuable bits of humor, controversy, entertainment, and investigative reporting.” , opinion, documentary and theatrical sketches.”
“It’s been called a mix of brilliants and trite,” he added, but concluded it was “one of the most exciting and imaginative segments of television this season.”
Looking back in 2020, Willis himself told The Times: “It was a great time on public television. If you thought it, you could do it.”
In 1963, he directed his first documentary, “The Streets of Greenwood,” a 20-minute film about a drive to voter registration in the Mississippi Delta. In collaboration with two friends, Phil Wardenburg and John Reavis, Mr. Willis recorded it with a camera borrowed from folk singer Pete Seeger, whose concert in a cotton field was featured in the film.
In 1979, Mr. Willis shared the George Polk Award for Best Documentary Feature with Saul Landau for “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang”. The film focused on journalist Paul Jacobs’ investigation of the radiation risks of nuclear tests in Nevada in the 1950s and 1960s and the federal government’s efforts to suppress information about its threat to public health.
Two other films he produced – “Lay My Burden Down” (1966), about the plight of tenant farmers in rural Alabama, and “Every Seventh Child” (1967), in which he questioned tax subsidies and other government benefits for the Catholic Education – were screened at the New York Film Festival.
Mr. Willis wrote, directed and produced “Appalachia: Rich Land Poor People” (1968), which exposed the abject poverty caused in large part by corporate greed, racism and ineffective local governments.
Willis’s commitment to civil rights was reflected in his enduring friendship with singer Harry Belafonte, an activist in the movement, who described Willis in an email as “a soul brother” whose “intellect and humor, combined with his courage, make him a of the most dear people I have ever known.”
“For those on the political left,” Mr Belafonte added, “he was living proof of the proverb, ‘You can keep the singer in a cage, but not the song.'”
Jack Lawrence Willis was born on June 20, 1934, in Milwaukee, the son of Louis Willis, a women’s shoe manufacturer, and Libbie (Feingold) Willis, a homemaker. The family moved to California when he was 9.
He received a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1956 from the University of California, Los Angeles, where he also played shortstop on the varsity baseball team. He fondly remembered being recruited by a Boston Red Sox farm team.
Mr. Willis dropped out of UCLA School of Law to serve in the military for two years, then graduated in 1962 and moved to New York, where he hoped to join a teaching job in Africa or the Middle East. .
While waiting for a job abroad that never came, he briefly worked in television for Allen Funt’s “Candid Camera” and David Susskind’s “Open End.”
He ran a film production company in California and was then hired as vice president of programming and production at CBS Cable, a short-lived but well-received performing arts channel.
From 1990 to 1997, Mr. Willis was president of KTCA, the public television station in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, then returned to New York where, working for George Soros’s Open Society Institute, he developed a media program. In 1999, he was a founding member of Link TV, a non-profit satellite TV network. He retired in 2011.
In addition to his wife, he leaves behind their two daughters, Sarah Willis and Kate Willis Ladell; three grandchildren; and his brother Richard.
Mr. Willis and his wife wrote a book, “…But there are always miracles” (1974), about his 1969 body-surfing accident near Southampton, NY. They were planning to get married when a crashing wave broke his neck and left him paralyzed from the chest. He was told he would never walk again.
After two surgeries and six months of inpatient rehabilitation, he left the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in Manhattan. The couple married a year later.
His story was adapted into a TV movie, “Some Kind of Miracle” (1979), with a screenplay by the couple. They wrote and produced other films together.
Shortly before he died, Ms. Willis said, her husband told her the accident “taught me to put everything in perspective — including the fear of failure.” He admitted he didn’t regret it, she said, “except,” she quoted him, “for taking that wave and turning down the Boston Red Sox.”