From right: Director John Korty, cast member Momo Yashima, composer Paul Chihara, and cast member Clyde Kusatsu at a screening of “Farewell to Manzanar” at the Japanese American National Museum in 2011. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)


Oscar-winning filmmaker John Korty, who directed the 1976 made-for-TV movie “Farewell to Manzanar,” has passed away at the age of 85.

According to The Marin Independent Journal, Korty died on March 9 at his home in Point Reyes Station, Marin County, north of San Francisco.

A native of Lafayette, Ind., and a graduate of Antioch College in Ohio, he moved to California in the 1960s and established studios in Stinson Beach and later Mill Valley, both in Marin County.

One of his most honored works was the 1977 documentary feature “Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?,” which profiled a couple who adopted 14 children while raising their own biological children. It won an Academy Award, a Directors Guild of America Award and a Humanitas Award, and a television version won an Emmy.

Korty may be best known for his made-for-TV films, which included “Go Ask Alice” (1973) and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1974). The latter film starred Cicely Tyson as a former slave who lived to see the civil rights movement of the early 1960s.

“Farewell to Manzanar,” based on the 1973 book of the same name by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, is the fact-based story of a Japanese American family incarcerated during World War II. The cast included Nobu McCarthy, Yuki Shimoda, Dori Takeshita, Akemi Kikumura, James Saito, Vernon Kato, Pat Morita, Mako, Seth Sakai and Frank Abe. It remains one of the few Hollywood productions about the camps or with a primarily Asian American cast.

Rather than Manzanar, much of the Humanitas Prize-winning film was shot at another former camp site, Tule Lake, just south of the California-Oregon border, where some wartime structures were still standing.

Both the book and the movie have been distributed to California schools and libraries, but until recently the movie was not available to the general public on home media.

Korty liked to make films in a variety of genres. His other credits include “Alex and the Gypsy,” a comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Genevieve Bujold; “Oliver’s Story” (1978), a sequel to “Love Story” starring Ryan O’Neal and Candice Bergen; “Twice Upon a Time” (1983), an animated fantasy; “The Ewok Adventure” (1984), part of the “Star Wars” franchise; “Line of Fire” (1991), the story of civil rights lawyer Morris Dees; and segments of “Sesame Street.”

The late Nobu McCarthy, who played Misa Wakatsuki, appears on the cover of the “Farewell to Manzanar” DVD.

In 2011, Korty attended a screening of “Farewell to Manzanar” at the Japanese American National Museum to celebrate the first-ever release of the film on DVD. He was joined by Paul Chihara, who composed the score, and cast members Clyde Kusatsu and Momo Yashima.

Korty said he was delighted that the public could watch the film 35 years after it first aired on NBC. “That’s why I went into film, because if you do something that’s worthwhile, it doesn’t disappear. Things really can last … It’s wonderful for me to realize that it’s still relevant.”

Despite the potentially controversial content, he recalled that he didn’t have that much trouble getting the film made because he had just done the Emmy-winning “Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” which was very well received. “Within the business, at that moment I had a lot of clout. Sometimes they call it ‘steam,’ and when I talk to film students I say the reason they call it steam is because it evaporates. If you don’t use the steam in the first year, by the second year it’s gone.”

On the making of the film, Korty said, “One of the things I did when I took the job was to immediately look for Japanese Americans in the movie business … I made sure that I had a Japanese American cameraman, who turned out to be an old friend of mine, Hiro Narita …

In a scene from “Farewell to Manzanar,” Pat Morita as Zenahiro (back to camera) takes a photograph of the Wakatsuki family. (Universal)

“I also interceded for … Richard Hashimoto, who was in the Directors Guild because he was in line to be a first assistant director, but he didn’t have all of the necessary paperwork and credits yet. By their rules, he could not be a first assistant; he would have to be a second assistant. I said … ‘Can’t you just break the rules?’ So they did. They gave him a time in which he could be a first assistant for us if he would go back to being a second assistant for a few months after that …

“We found a wonderful art director, Bob Kinoshita, who had been in the camps. He knew them inside and out, how all the physical details should be. He designed the guard towers.”

Regarding casting, Korty said that he wanted all of the main roles to go to Japanese Americans. “When I worked with the casting people, they started to bring in Chinese Americans and Filipino Americans. They were perfectly nice people and probably talented actors, but I said no, we can’t do that.”

Korty told the audience, which included many Japanese Americans, “This story belongs to you … It was actually not an easy film to make but it was a film that was rewarding in every stage.”

Upon hearing of Korty’s passing, Kusatsu posted on Facebook, “I had the honor of being cast by John for ‘Farewell to Manzanar’ … John also invited me to join his cast of KQED pilot ‘The Transport of Delight’ and ‘Alex and the Gypsy’ with Jack Lemmon. He believed that you could reach the public with more timely and important stories than films were doing at the time in the ’70s and ’80s. Aloha Oe. Farewell to Thee Until We Meet Again. Mahalo nui’loha John.”

He is survived by his wife Jane Silvia, three children Jonathan, David and Gabriel Korty and siblings Doug and Nancy Korty. His wife said that at the time of his death he was still putting together films that he never finished.

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