Tom Luddy, co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival and former director of programming at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). Credit: BAMPFA

When Tom Luddy founded the Telluride Film Festival in 1974, it was clear to many in the film world that this was a different type of festival – eclectic, inclusive and focused on the art of cinema.

“That was what made that film festival so exceptional. Its devotion – obsession – with neglected films, films about faraway places you may have not heard, and resuscitating them,” said Steve Wasserman, a longtime friend of Luddy’s and the current publisher of Berkeley’s Heyday Books. “The film festivals that existed before were really dedicated to the propagation of commercial filmmaking,”

That ethos of the festival is perhaps unsurprising, considering Luddy, its founder, was known for being a connector of people, ideas and film. The New York Times, in a 1984 profile, called him “a one-man switchboard,” noting that “through his background as an archivist and film scholar, through his network of filmmaking friends, and through his own activities, including those of producer, he has become one of those forces behind the scenes who exerts a farreaching influence on international film.”

Luddy died on Feb. 13 at his home in Berkeley after a long illness. He was 79. 

And as friends and colleagues have reflected on his legacy, they recall a person who had an indelible impact on his community.

Born June 4, 1943, in New York, Luddy came to UC Berkeley as a student in 1962, becoming involved in several student film societies and working at the art-house theater Berkeley Cinema Guild. After a stint in New York, he joined the Telegraph Repertory Cinema in Berkeley as its program director and assisted artistic director Albert Johnson at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Tom Luddy, co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival and former director of programming at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). Credit: BAMPFA

He was also active in the politics of the time, including the Free Speech movement of the mid-1960s. Wasserman remembers gathering with other “radicals” in a collective on Parker Street in 1969 – his first glimpse at Luddy’s ability to use film to connect people and ideas: Luddy brought a 16-mm projector to screen a film about the story of American activists aiding an uprising in Mexico. 

“It felt like we were gazing into a crystal ball,” Wasserman recalled in an interview with Berkeleyside.

In 1972, Luddy became the director of programming at the Pacific Film Archive, which had been incorporated into what was then the University Art Museum – now known as the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA. A few years later, in 1975, he became the director of the organization. Tapping his network of people in the film industry, he brought notable filmmakers from all over the world to Berkeley — among them Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Jean Eustache, Milos Forman, Nicholas Ray, and Glauber Rocha, according to BAMPFA.

“In the 70s, the Pacific Film Archive  was really the epicenter for film culture in the U.S.,” Susan Oxtoby, the organization’s Director of Film and Senior Film Curator, told Berkeleyside. “It was literally people coming all over the world – filmmakers – spending time in Berkeley.

“He really was creating something which the Berkeley audience and the international filmmaking community really respected,” Oxtoby added.

With friends Bill and Stella Pence and James Card, Luddy founded the Telluride Film Festival in 1974. The festival has been influential and revered – a collection of film screenings and talks geared toward cinephiles rather than paparazzi, commercial success or the other trappings of the movie business.

“The world has lost a rare ingredient that we’ll all be searching for, for some time,” Julie Huntsinger, the Telluride Film Festival’s executive director, said in a public statement. “I would sometimes find myself feeling sad for those who didn’t get to know Tom Luddy properly. He had a sphinxlike quality that took a little time to get around, for some. But once you knew him, you were welcomed into a kingdom of art, history, intelligence, humor, and joie de vivre that you knew you couldn’t be without. He made life richer. Magical. He called Telluride a labor of love for a very long time. We’re so much better off because of him and that labor.” 

Tom Luddy, co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival and former director of programming at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). Credit: BAMPFA

Amid his work curating film festivals all over the world, Luddy became active in film production, too. 

In 1979, Luddy joined George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola’s company American Zoetrope as its director of special projects, producing films such as Paul Schrader’s “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” Norman Mailer’s “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” and Agnieszka Holland’s “The Secret Garden.” 

Schrader recently wrote about Luddy in The Guardian, calling him the “beating heart of 70s and 80s film culture.” 

“Quite simply, I’m a film-maker because of him,” noted documentarian Errol Morris in the same piece. 

Director Martin Scorcese, in a recent public statement, called Luddy “pivotal” in the film world.

“As a programmer and a curator, at the Pacific Film Archive, the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival, he was instrumental in finding new filmmakers of promise, forgotten filmmakers of the past, and bringing us all together, bridging every distance, geographical and historical,” Scorcese said.

Much of that connection happened in Berkeley: Luddy’s then-partner Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971 and attributes the name of the restaurant to the inspiration from watching the work of French filmmaker Marcel Pagnol. 

Filmmakers, artists and writers often gathered at the restaurant – now globally considered an institution in restaurants.

“His great gift was for friendship and fellowship,” Wasserman said. “He was a champion for cinema.”

Luddy is survived by his wife, Monique Montgomery, siblings Brian Luddy, David Luddy, James Luddy and Jeanne Van Duzer, as well as nephews Stevens and Will Van Duzer and nieces Dierdre Pino, Megan Archer and Caroline Van Duzer.