Al Milgrom was the kind of guy who always seemed young, even when he wasn't. At age 96, he came out as the "oldest emerging documentary filmmaker" with the premiere of "Singin' in the Grain," his portrait of a multigenerational Minnesota polka band.
But he's better known for fostering the Twin Cities film scene.
Milgrom founded what is now the Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul, taught cinema at the University of Minnesota and launched the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. Along the way, he built an audience for foreign and indie films while bringing such famed directors as Werner Herzog, Jean-Luc Godard and Milos Forman to town.
He died Sunday at his home near the university after suffering a stroke, just weeks after his 98th birthday.
Milgrom was an inspiration to young and aspiring filmmakers, often taking them under his wing.
"There are hundreds of film professionals across the United States who were directly influenced, if not by the man, by his film programming," said New Orleans-based filmmaker Adam Sekuler, who met Milgrom as a student and became the film society's program director. "The cinephelic love of film that Al exuded was really why I wanted to get into film in the first place."
The Coen brothers even name-checked him in a movie, "Inside Llewyn Davis."
He seemed unstoppable.
"When he turned 98 a month ago, I was like, 'What are we going to do for his 99th?' " said his daughter, Marsha Milgrom of St. Paul.
He had been holed up at home, determined to finish a documentary about a trip he took to Russia in the 1950s.
"He was hoping to get that done this year," said Randy Adamsick, a Milgrom protégé who went on to lead the Minnesota Film Board and is now a director at the Chicago History Museum. "He had footage taken in the 1950s and '60s when no one was really even allowed to go to Moscow. He had access to the world."
For decades, Milgrom worked seemingly without sleep, stapling fliers onto telephone poles, buttonholing potential filmgoers at cultural events and working the phone in his cluttered office to land obscure gems for the audience he cultivated.
"He made this decision back in the 1960s that he wanted to bring international film to the Upper Midwest," said the Film Society's current executive director, Susan Smoluchowski. "And he did so with such intensity and design and determination, that's why people in this community swear by Al."
At film fest screenings, people would spot him scribbling notes in the dark using a pen with a tiny light.
Always, he was driven.
"He was a very complicated man," said his son, Benjamin Milgrom, of Seattle. "His bright side was very bright and his dark side was very dark. There was no middle ground."
Marsha Milgrom recalls a childhood spent in the basement, viewing movies endlessly with her dad.
"I remember watching Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton films," she said. "I don't know if other kids grew up that way. The kids in the neighborhood might have had other things in their basement."
His obsession was contagious
In a state known for its politeness, Milgrom defied social norms, sometimes to his own detriment.
"Minnesota Public Radio was the media sponsor of the film festival for many years but they stopped because Al was calling the president of MPR at midnight, screaming at him," said Emily Condon, who worked as a festival programmer before becoming managing director for "This American Life."
"There was something remarkable and exciting about someone that unwilling to bow to conventions."
His lifelong obsession with film was contagious, inspiring legions of filmmakers.
When then-budding filmmaker Kiersten Chace met Milgrom in 2008 through DocuClub Minnesota, a monthly meetup for documentary filmmakers, she regarded him as a curmudgeon. He showed a different side after taking interest in her film, "Word of Honour," about South Africa and mixed-race "coloured/Khoe" people.
"He kind of adopted me," she said. "He took me under his wing and gave me all kinds of ideas."
Minnesota-based filmmaker David Burton Morris made his first movie with a camera borrowed from Milgrom.
"Growing up in St. Paul to parents I'd kindly say weren't very worldly when it came to the arts and literature, Al opened my eyes to a global world of cinema I never knew existed," said Morris. "Lord knows how many filmmakers he inspired over the years. He will be sadly missed."
Raised in Pine City, north of the Twin Cities, Milgrom was born Nov. 21, 1922, the eldest of three children of Russian-Jewish immigrants who made their way first to north Minneapolis through distant relatives. His father Louis, a tailor, decided on Pine City because he figured there'd be less competition.
"Singin' in the Grain" was inspired by Milgrom's childhood in what was then a predominantly Czech community.
"He was obsessed with making that film and I kept saying 'Al, does that film have a narrative arc? Do you know what it's going to be?' " said filmmaker Melody Gilbert, a fellow Jew of Russian descent who runs DocuClub. "And he finally said, 'It doesn't really matter and I am going to finish that film because those people were so kind to my family and I want to give back to them."
Milgrom is survived by his sister, Elle Stern; children Jacalyn Lechner, Marsha and Ben; grandchildren Anna Goetter and Margaret Sharp-Milgrom, and former wife Jeanette Hofstee Milgrom. Services have not been planned.
Alicia Eler • 612-673-4437