Les Blank Dies: Renowned Documentary Filmaker Dead At 77

Documentary filmmaker Les Blank, best known for his films on American food and music forms, died Sunday at his home in Berkeley, California. He was 77.

Harrod Blank, Les’ son, told the Los Angeles Times his father’s death came nearly a year after being diagnosed with bladder cancer.

A Florida native, Les Blank attended Tulane University in New Orleans, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English.

After being inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal — a film about a medieval knight that challenges Death to a game of chess — Les changed his career path, earned a master of fine arts in theater from Tulane and began a doctoral program in filmmaking at USC.

His on-the-job training was in industrial and educational films and he opened a production company, Flower Films, in 1967.

Over the course of his four decades as a filmmaker, Blank created more than 40 documentaries, first focusing on traditional American music forms, including Appalachian, polka, Tex-Mex, tamburitza, and Hawaiian. He shifted to food with documentaries like 1980’s Garlic is as Good as 10 Mothers and 2007’s All in This Tea.

Besides receiving a BAFTA for Best Documentary for 1982’s Burden of Dreams and the Chicago Film Festival Award for The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Les Blank also won the American Film Institute’s Maya Deren Independent Film and Video Artists Award in 1990 and in 2007 became the first documentary filmmaker to receive the prestigious Edward MacDowell Medal, presented by the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

Blank received lifetime achievement awards from the American Film Institute and the International Documentary Association and given the honorary Maverick Award at the Woodstock Film Festival in 2000.

He is survived by his ex-wife Chris Simon, his sons Harrod and Beau Blank as well as his daughter Ferris Robinson.

Here are some clips from some of Blank’s films.

1989’s J’ai Été Au Bal (I Went to the Ball) about the Zydeco music and Cajun music scene in Louisiana.

Lightnin’ Hopkins playing ‘That Woman Named Mary’ from the documentary The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins.