My first encounter with Robert was after my first New York performances of Five Bells for 9/11, 9/11/02. I got to my office at the Helen Hayes Theatre, and there was a note slipped under my door: "Five Bells. That was lovely. Robert." I asked around and someone said it must have been from the gentleman in the office around the corner. "He won an Oscar." It was from Robert, and we struck up a friendship that lasted almost a dozen years. We'd stop by each other's offices and chat. Seemed like 10-15 minutes, but we'd look at our clocks and see it had been 60-90 minutes. Since my dad is a pilot we talked a lot about flight. His youngest son, Dylan, performs his own one-man plays, so we talked a lot about the struggles and joys of this crazy career. Of course we talked about writing. And we talked a whole lot about God.
We trudged through the snow on Thursday to see him. We talked about waiting until the weather cleared up, but we're so glad we didn't. He wasn't talking by the time we got there, but we believe he heard us. He was still able to communicate with his unforgettable eyebrows, which he refused to trim.
Robert won the Oscar in 1970 for a documentary he did on Czechoslovakia, which you can watch below. Fred Astaire and Bob Hope handed him his golden statue, and you can watch Astaire's only dance at the Oscars leading up to the award below:
He was also the first person to get cameras into courtrooms. But when we got home from our visit we watched "Look to the Stars," an episode of Bonanza that he wrote.
Ralph Waite, the father on The Waltons died the day before Robert. The New York Times cited a 2004 TV Guide Poll that rated Mr. Walton as the number three TV dad behind Bill Cosby's Cliff Huxtable, number one, and Lorne Greene's Ben Cartwright, number two. So Robert filled the mouth of the second best dad that's ever been on TV. Robert seemed like a pretty great dad in real life, too. In all the countless hours we spent in the Helen Hayes hallway many of them were spent talking about our families. He never said a negative word about either of his sons or his wife, all of whom he loved very much along with the grandkids.
Here are the tributes printed in the The New York Times (Robert M. Fresco, Oscar-Winning Documentary Filmmaker, Dies at 83) and in Variety (Robert M. Fresco, Documentarian and Horror Pic Writer, Dies at 83).
Here's an interview I did with him on Friendship for a sermon series at our church:
Robert Fresco on Friendship from Rich Swingle on Vimeo.
I was honored that they included a clip from that at his funeral, along with clips from his work on television, film and his documentaries.
His Academy Award-winning "Czechoslovakia 1968" is now online:
Here are Robert's program notes on Czechoslovakia 1968.