Alan Root, a wildlife filmmaker who splashed through crocodile-infested rivers, piloted hot-air balloons over stampeding wildebeests and lost a “Coke bottle”-size chunk of his calf to an angry hippopotamus, all while producing nearly two dozen acclaimed nature documentaries, died Aug. 26. He was 80.
Root had just returned from a safari in Alaska when he was hospitalized near his home in central Kenya, just outside the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, said Delta Willis, a friend and U.S. publicist for several of Root’s television specials. He had been diagnosed with the brain cancer glioblastoma in April, she said.
Root, an Englishman, spent nearly all his life in Kenya, where he and his first wife, Joan, acquired a reputation as two of Africa’s finest — and most scar-ridden — documentarians.
“The Man Who Was Eaten Alive,” as a New Yorker profile by George Plimpton once described him, was working on a watering-hole scene when he was mauled by a hippo. He nearly died after going into anaphylactic shock following a bite from a puff adder, but lost only the index finger of his right hand, forcing him to reconfigure the hand controls of his helicopter — an aircraft that he began flying in his 60s and crashed at least twice.
A leopard once bit into his bottom, and a mountain gorilla — what Root described as “a Doberman on steroids” — ripped into his thigh while he was helping to shoot a scene for “Gorillas in the Mist,” the 1988 film about Dian Fossey, whom Root reportedly introduced to gorillas decades earlier.
Root was considered one of the first filmmakers to capture animals in their natural habitat without human interference, and was credited with paving the way for migration movies such as “March of the Penguins.” He received two Emmy Awards and was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2008.
While he wrote, filmed and produced most of his documentaries, including television specials for National Geographic, the BBC and the “Survival” series on Britain’s Anglia network, Joan Root often played a central role behind the scenes, allowing a cobra to spit on her sunglass-clad face for one shot and piloting a balloon over the 19,000-foot peak of Mount Kilimanjaro for another.
“In a world where natural history films have become increasingly formulaic, made by big teams with big budgets, backed by an army of researchers, scientific advisers, and camera-people, Alan was the original auteur,” the filmmaker Mark Deeble, a protege of Root, wrote in a tribute.
The Roots, he continued, “combined natural history integrity with irreverence [and] conveyed a knowledge of natural history and wildlife behavior that few could equal.”
Alan Root was born in London on May 12, 1937. His father was a manager at a fish-paste factory, and moved the family to Kenya for a job at a corned-beef plant when Mr. Root was 9.
For Root, it was an opportunity to surround himself with more exotic pets than he had owned in England, including a baby bongo (he later gave it to the Cleveland Zoo), a baboon named Bimbo and a backyard full of snakes. He dropped out of school at 16 and taught himself to trap, guide and fly planes while developing what Deeble described as a “repertoire of baboon alarm calls, elephant farts and wildebeest contact calls.”
He also began shooting movies with a 16-millimeter Bolex camera. In a well-received 2012 memoir, “Ivory, Apes & Peacocks,” Root said he was drawn to make films that corrected the excesses of early nature programs — television shows that, as he put it, made it seem as though animals “were something you picked up, basically molested and used to augment your ego.”
He was a cameraman for “Serengeti Shall Not Die,” a 1959 documentary by the father-son team of Bernhard and Michael Grzimek, when the younger Grzimek died in a plane crash. Root finished the film, which won an Academy Award for best documentary.
“It was all downhill after that,” he quipped.
He married Joan Thorpe, the daughter of a safari guide, in 1961. They embarked on a series of journeys across Africa and the rest of the world, visiting the Galápagos Islands for “Voyage to the Enchanted Isles” (1967). To capture the ground-level thunder of a roaming herd in “The Year of the Wildebeest” (1974), they hid their camera inside a tortoise shell.
Their crossing of Kilimanjaro, for “Balloon Safari” (1975), reportedly marked the first instance that a hot-air balloon was used to photograph African wildlife – an innovation based on Root’s concern that helicopters were too noisy and airplanes too fast. (He later started a hot-air balloon safari company, and reportedly crashed while piloting former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.)
Among the couple’s most acclaimed works was the termite-focused “Mysterious Castles of Clay” (1978), which featured narration from Orson Welles and a memorably destructive appearance from an aardvark — an animal that was, as Root observed in his narration, “first word in the dictionary, last word in anteater design.”
Root and his wife’s relationship fractured in the years after the movie, and they divorced in 1990. She was fatally shot at her home in Kenya in 2006 by intruders. The case is unsolved but has been linked to her conservation efforts.
Root married Jennie Hammond in 1991; she died in 2000. Survivors include his wife, Fran Michelmore, and their two sons, Myles and Rory.
He seemed to be fully aware of the danger of his work, telling journalist John Heminway that “when he dies he intends his body to be left on an African savannah.”
“He will be repaying old debts to vultures, hyenas and porcupines,” Heminway wrote in his 1983 book “No Man’s Land,” recounting their conversation. Those creatures, he continued, will in turn “be scratching off obligations to the smaller creatures — the beetles, bot flies and termites. His end, in short, will be many beginnings.”