Robert M. Fresco, an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker who began his career as a writer of horror pictures, died on Feb. 14 in Manhattan. He was 83.
The cause was cancer, his family said.
With his co-producer, Denis Sanders, Mr. Fresco won an Oscar in 1969 for the documentary short “Czechoslovakia 1968.” The film, which the two men also wrote and directed, chronicled a half-century of Czech history, culminating in the Prague Spring uprising of 1968. It drew extensively on archival footage, much of it smuggled out of Communist Czechoslovakia.
Mr. Fresco was also known for “Trial: The City and County of Denver vs. Lauren R. Watson,” a six-hour documentary that he and Mr. Sanders produced for public television in 1970. The film followed the criminal proceedings against Mr. Watson, a Black Panther Party member charged with resisting arrest and interfering with a police officer after a Denver patrolman stopped his speeding car in 1968.
Colorado was then one of the few states to permit cameras in courtrooms, and the documentary was widely described as the first complete account of a trial to be shown on American television.
Broadcast over four consecutive nights, the film opened with jury selection, went on to chronicle defense and prosecution arguments and closed with the verdict. (The all-white jury acquitted Mr. Watson on the charge of resisting arrest; the judge dismissed the other charge.)
Robert Maurice Fresco was born in Burbank, Calif., on Oct. 18, 1930, to a family of French- and Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Turkey.
After Army service stateside, Mr. Fresco began his career as a screenwriter on B pictures in Hollywood. Among them are “Tarantula” (1955), starring John Agar, Leo G. Carroll and an immense spider; “The Monolith Monsters”(1957), about vindictive rocks; and “The Alligator People” (1959), about precisely that.
He also wrote for “Wagon Train,” “Bonanza,” “Science Fiction Theater” and other TV shows.
Mr. Fresco, who lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, is survived by his wife, Judith Dawidoff Fresco, a former assistant to the two-time Democratic presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson (they met while making a documentary about American political conventions); two sons, André and Dylan; and three grandchildren.
His other films as a producer include “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” a 1972 television adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s posthumous autobiographical work, starring Ruby Dee and Blythe Danner.
Mr. Fresco taught film, television and communications at Columbia University, Hofstra University, Colorado College and elsewhere.
In an interview with The New York Times in 1970, Mr. Fresco spoke about the rigors that “Trial,” then about to be broadcast, might pose for the viewer.
“Some of it is tedious,” he said. “Some of it is repetitious. But so, of course, is a trial.” But, he added, “we hope that the film will demonstrate that television can be the truth box it should be.”