Obituary: Gail R. Levin / Documentary filmmaker for PBS series

June 20, 1946 - July 31, 2013

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Gail R. Levin, a documentary filmmaker whose work for the "American Masters" series on PBS brought fresh perspectives to celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Cab Calloway, died July 31 in the Bronx section of New York City. She was 67.

The cause was complications of metastatic breast cancer, her brother and only survivor, David, said.

Ms. Levin produced her best-known work for "American Masters," which profiles people in the arts. She often played down biographical details to tell the subject's stories in an almost impressionistic manner.

In "Marilyn Monroe: Still Life" (2006), Ms. Levin examined Monroe through her many famous photographs; in "James Dean: Sense Memories" (2005), she focused on Dean's acting in a three-film career cut short by his death in a car accident.

"Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides" (2011) showed off-screen glimpses of Mr. Bridges as a musician, painter, potter and vintner, along with interviews and stock footage.

Ms. Levin's last film was "Cab Calloway: Sketches" (2012), about the sinuous, scat-singing Harlem bandleader. The movie focused on Calloway's crossover appeal and the enduring impact of his slick dancing style. (Calloway's grandson, C. Calloway Brooks, said his grandfather adapted his moves from a rooster's strut.) The cartoonist Steve Brodner sketches a caricature of Calloway during the film, and at the end, the drawing springs into animation and jitterbugs alongside a dancer to raucous jazz music.

"It was really important for me to create something that was contemporary," Ms. Levin said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. "To make people feel like, 'Wow, this guy's cool.' To make him dance again. For all of that, movement was crucial."

Gail Ruth Levin was born in Chicago on June 20, 1946, to Jack and Sallye Levin, who owned a chain of Midwestern clothing stores. The family moved to Omaha, Neb., and Ms. Levin became obsessed with film after seeing Federico Fellini's "81/2" and Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up."

Ms. Levin studied education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, then moved to Boston for graduate work at Wheelock College. She worked for the Boston television station WBZ in the 1970s.

In the early 1980s, Ms. Levin moved to Manhattan.

Her first major solo project for PBS was the documentary " 'Guys and Dolls': Off the Record" (1992), part of the network's "Great Performances" series, about the recording session for the album of the musical's 1992 Broadway revival. Another "Great Performances" documentary, "Making 'The Misfits' " (2002), about Clark Gable and Monroe's last movie, sparked her interest in Monroe.

Ms. Levin was planning documentaries about the Hollywood photographer Sam Shaw and the conversations between Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut before she became ill.

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