Leon Gast, Oscar-Winning Documentarian of ‘When We Were Kings,’ Dies at 85

Natalie Oganesyan
·2-min read

Leon Gast, the Academy Award-winning director behind sport documentary “When We Were Kings,” died on Monday, according to Meira Blaustein, his close friend and the co-founder of Woodstock Film Festival. He was 85.

Blaustein shared the news of Gast’s death in a Facebook post. “He was a giant of a filmmaker, an absolute joy of a human being, and a very dear and beloved friend,” Blaustein wrote. “I am so grateful that I got to visit with him yesterday, tell him how much I loved him, how much he meant to all of us. I only wish I had stayed longer.”

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“When We Were Kings,” which won best documentary feature at the 1997 Oscars, explores the iconic boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali that took place in Kinshasa, Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1974. Featuring historical footage and new interviews, the doc also examines the relationship between Black Americans and the African continent in the era of Black power and the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko.

Born in Jersey City, N.J., Gast attended attended Columbia University before beginning a career in still photography.

In 1974, he journeyed to Kinshasa to shoot a music festival but decided to focus on the Ali-Foreman match instead, returning with 300,000 feet of film. However, he lacked the resources to complete a documentary, and legal challenges delayed the film’s release, with boxing promoter Don King, distributor Hank Schwarz and music promoter Lloyd Price suing him. Prior to the project’s release, Gast worked on other docs including “The Grateful Dead Movie,” which he co-directed with Jerry Garcia, and “Hell’s Angels Forever,” which he co-directed with Richard Chase and Kevin Keating.

Gast also executive produced Bill Siegel’s 2013 PBS documentary “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” which garnered a news and documentary Emmy. His 2010 doc, “Smash His Camera,” which explores the nature of paparazzi through the work of celebrity photographer Ron Galella, earned Gast a documentary directing award and the film a documentary grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. His final film, 2014’s Manny, co-directed with Ryan Moore, centered on another champion boxer, Manny Pacquiao.

Gast is survived by his wife, Geri.

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