Perry Miller Adato, A Filmmaker Focused on Artists, Dies at 97

The following was originally published in The New York Times:

Perry Miller Adato, who began her award-winning career as a documentary director in the late 1960s, when relatively few women were in the field, and went on to make films about Georgia O’Keeffe, Gertrude Stein, Picasso and other cultural figures, died on Sunday at her home in Westport, Conn. She was 97.

Her niece Brooke Garber Neidich confirmed her death.

“She was a great filmmaker and an absolute perfectionist,” Susan Lacy, the creator and former executive producer of the PBS documentary series “American Masters,” who worked with Ms. Adato on two films in that series, said in a telephone interview. “She stood equal with men in an industry that wasn’t always welcoming to women.”

Ms. Adato, whose first film was “Dylan Thomas: The World I Breathe” (1968), was known for her vivid storytelling, which used onscreen and offscreen voices, photographs and scenes from plays — techniques that have since become commonplace in documentaries.

Her Dylan Thomas film won an Emmy Award for outstanding cultural documentary. “Georgia O’Keeffe” (1977) brought her a Directors Guild of America Award, the first for a documentary by a woman. She would win a total of four D.G.A. Awards.

“If you want to change people’s minds and their attitudes, if you want to teach them or tell them anything,” Ms. Adato said in a video interview on her archive’s website in 2011, describing her filmmaking philosophy, “you can’t lecture to them. You have to entertain them.”

She got her first chance to entertain people in 1967, when she was in her late 40s. Until then she had worked behind the scenes as a film researcher, first at CBS and, since 1964, at National Educational Television, a program producer and distributor that was a predecessor of WNET, the New York City public television station.

When she urged Jac Venza, a cultural producer at N.E.T., to make a documentary about Thomas, the Welsh poet best known for “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” he suggested that she produce and direct it.

“I had seen so many films on art that I obviously had learned something,” she recalled on her website, “and I guess I maybe had a feel for it.”

Adato with Georgia O’Keeffe at O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiú, N.M., in 1980.  Adato’s 1977 film about O’Keeffe brought her a Directors Guild of America Award, the first for a documentary by a woman. Credit via Perry Miller Adato archive


The documentary, part of the series “NET Journal,” blended interviews with Thomas’s friends, audio recordings of him, photos and notebooks showing the evolution of his poems. Reviewing it in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Harry Harriswrote that it “had all the fascination of superior drama as it traced Thomas’s tumultuous career from word-worshiping childhood to sordid, sodden death at 39.”

In 1970 Ms. Adato made “Gertrude Stein: When This You See, Remember Me,”which emerged from her idea for a documentary about Paris as a fecund cultural catalyst between 1905 and 1930. Told by a WNET executive that Paris was too broad a subject, she chose Stein, the bold avant-garde writer, as someone whose life and work embodied that period.

“I wanted to make the statement that Gertrude Stein wasn’t some esoteric person who lived in the first part of the 20th century,” she said in her website interview, “but that she was very current.”

The documentarian Ken Burns recalled watching the Stein film in the 1970s as a student at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., fascinated by the personalities who spoke on and offscreen as images illustrated Stein’s life and work.

“I had this ‘aha’ moment where I said, ‘Don’t show the actors, just use the chorus of voices under the photos,’ ” Mr. Burns said in a telephone interview. “She opened the door to using first-person voices, so my first film, ‘Brooklyn Bridge,’ had a third-person narrator and a chorus of first-person narrators, all off camera.”

“You need to find your way,” he continued, “and she permitted me to find mine.”

Four decades later, she made that Paris documentary — “Paris: The Luminous Years” (2010) — for PBS. It was her last film.

“While countless books have been written and films made about this era,” David Wiegand wrote in a review in The San Francisco Chronicle, “Miller Adato connects the dots succinctly and with thrilling insight.”

Lillian Perry Miller was born on Dec. 22, 1920, in Yonkers. Her father, Perry, was a dentist who died when she was 2. Her mother, Ida (Block) Miller, managed several small apartment buildings to earn a living.

Perry, as Ms. Miller was known, pursued an acting career during and after high school and during World War II was stirred to social activism. She had already acted on radio when she and some of her theater friends founded Stage for Action in 1943 to present socially relevant plays — written by Arthur Miller and Ben Hecht, among others — in churches and union halls.

When the war ended, her attention shifted to film as a medium to effect change. She worked for the United Nations as a film consultant. In 1950, after a brief marriage ended in divorce, she moved to Paris, where her friendship with members of the Unesco documentary film unit helped her develop an expertise in European documentaries, including those by the undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Inspired by the films she had seen in Paris, she created the Film Advisory Center to import European documentaries to the United States. She recruited Robert Flaherty, the director of the celebrated documentary “Nanook of the North”(1922), as its chairman.

“This is what created my career,” she said on her website, “because through these contacts I began to know people.”

She left the center to join CBS in 1953 as the film researcher for “Adventure,” a documentary series about science, and later worked on other programs, including “The Seven Lively Arts.” She stayed at CBS for 11 years before being hired by N.E.T. as a film researcher for the program “History of the Negro People” (1965).

Her work on the O’Keeffe documentary, seen on PBS stations in 1977, started with doubts: O’Keeffe, the doyenne of American painting, was then in her late 80s and rarely spoke to the media. Ms. Adato wrote her a letter suggesting that it was time for O’Keeffe to tell her own story rather than let others continue to tell it. O’Keeffe agreed and cooperated fully, giving candid interviews and providing home movies.

The letter “was the right tone,” Ms. Adato said on her website. “The first thing she said to me was, ‘You don’t look like a television producer.’ That was good.”

The documentary was eventually added to PBS’s “American Masters” series, which began in 1986. Ms. Adato made two documentaries for “American Masters”: “Eugene O’Neill: A Glory of Ghosts” (1986) and “Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye,” about the photographic pioneer who was married to O’Keeffe from 1924 to 1946.

Ms. Adato is survived by her daughters, Laurie Adato and Michelle Adato, and two grandchildren. Her husband, Neil Adato, an engineer and builder, died last year.

In 1972, with feminism ascendant, Ms. Adato spoke with some regret about having been a behind-the-scenes player before she began making her own films.

“If I had been a man, I would have pushed harder or left,” she told The New York Times during the First International Festival of Women’s Films, which included her Stein documentary. “But I loved my work, and besides, I couldn’t spend the long hours in the cutting room required of a director without neglecting my family.”

She added, “Our culture demands that women play many different roles, and it takes a lot out of us trying to measure up.”