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Marvin Chomsky, Director of ‘Roots’ and ‘Holocaust,’ Dies at 92

Marvin Chomsky, an Emmy Award-winning director renowned for his work on historical dramas, including the blockbuster mini-series “Roots” and “Holocaust,” died on March 28 in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 92.

His son Eric confirmed the death, in hospice care in a retirement community.

Mr. Chomsky had been directing episodic television for many years when he was hired as one of the four directors of “Roots,” the groundbreaking 12-hour series based on Alex Haley’s book tracing his family’s origins from an African village to enslavement in the United States. Shown on eight consecutive nights in January 1977, it drew spectacular ratings and won nine Emmys.

The “Roots” cinematographer Joseph Wilcots said in a Television Academy interview in 2007 that Mr. Chomsky was “a brilliant director” who “always thought his shots out very clearly,” in particular one in which Tom Harvey, the Black character played by Georg Stanford Brown, was whipped.

Louis Gossett Jr., who played the enslaved musician Fiddler, told the syndicated columnist Cleveland Amory in 1977 that Mr. Chomsky and another director, John Erman, who were both white, were “very sensitive” and “let each of us do what we thought was best for our particular role.”

Mr. Chomsky was nominated for an Emmy for “Roots” but lost to David Greene, another “Roots” director. He won his first Emmy a year later for directing “Holocaust” (1978), a four-part series, starring Meryl Streep and Michael Moriarty, that focused on two families in Nazi Germany: one Jewish, the other headed by an SS officer.

Before filming a scene in which Mr. Moriarty, who played Erik Dorf, the SS officer, broke into tears, Mr. Chomsky showed him photographs of Nazi atrocities.

“What you saw was Michael Moriarty’s response to those pictures,” Mr. Moriarty told The Fort Lauderdale News shortly after the series premiered. “The horror of what Dorf had done, the level of guilt — it was very close.”

Eric Chomsky said in an interview that his father had been “traumatized” by the experience of filming in Germany and Austria, which included directing one scene in the former gas chamber at the Mauthausen concentration camp and another in which a large group of extras, portraying Jewish prisoners, were forced to strip naked and machine-gunned in a ravine.

One young cameraman, Mr. Chomsky said, did not believe that the scene could have been based on reality.

“Mr. Marvin, you are making this up for the movie,” Mr. Chomsky recalled the man telling him in a 2007 Directors Guild of America interview. “This didn’t really happen.”

Mr. Chomsky called on a German crew member to attest to its veracity.

When Mr. Chomsky accepted the Emmy for “Holocaust,” he said he had mixed feelings about winning an honor for a series that “depicted events that never should have happened at all.”

But, he added, “They did happen, and I’m proud to have been able to tell that story to those who didn’t know, like my sons David, Eric and Peter, and possibly to remind some of those who forgot.”

Marvin Joseph Chomsky was born on May 23, 1929, in the Bronx and grew up in Brooklyn. His father, Harry, and his mother, Gloria (Yarmuk) Chomsky, both immigrated from what is now Belarus and owned a candy store.

While Mr. Chomsky was attending Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, his deep voice brought him to the attention of an all-city radio workshop. That led to his appearing on a local radio station and, soon, working on a TV show for teenagers in the medium’s early days.

He graduated from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in speech in 1950 and earned a master’s in drama at Stanford University a year later. Following his Army service, Mr. Chomsky spent the next decade as an art director and scenic designer for TV shows, including “Captain Kangaroo,” “Arthur Godfrey Time” and the anthology series “Studio One.”

While working as an art director on the series “The Doctors and the Nurses” in the early 1960s, Mr. Chomsky was asked by the show’s executive producer, Herbert Brodkin, if he wanted to become a producer. Mr. Chomsky declined, saying he’d rather be a director. He went on to direct three episodes of the show, followed by a long run of work on series like “The Wild Wild West,” “Star Trek,” “Gunsmoke,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Hawaii Five-O” and “Mannix.”

After “Roots” and “Holocaust,” Mr. Chomsky won Emmys for directing “Attica” (1980), a TV movie about the bloody prison riot in upstate New York, and “Inside the Third Reich” (1982), a two-part film based on the autobiography of Albert Speer, Hitler’s minister of armaments and war production.

He won his fourth Emmy as a producer of “Peter the Great” (1986), a mini-series about the Russian czar Peter I, starring Maximilian Schell, which Mr. Chomsky also co-directed with Lawrence Schiller.

His last credits include “Strauss Dynasty” (1991), a mini-series about the Austrian musical family, and “Catherine the Great” (1995), a TV movie starring Catherine Zeta-Jones.

In addition to his son Eric, Mr. Chomsky is survived by his other sons, Peter and David, and a granddaughter. He was separated from his second wife, Christa Baum-Chomsky. His marriage to Tobye Kaplan ended in divorce.

Eric Chomsky said his father had wanted the facts in his work to stand up to scrutiny:

“I worked with him on ‘The Deliberate Stranger’” — a 1986 mini-series about the serial killer Ted Bundy — “and my whole job was to read the trial transcripts to make sure the script was accurate.”

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