Bruce Brown, surfing’s consummate filmmaker, has died. Brown, who is best known forThe Endless Summer, played a large role in what surfing is today.
“We got a call today from his family that he had passed away,” said Jim Kempton, Former Editor and Publisher of Surfer and President of the California Surf Museum, to The Inertia. “We are going to miss him greatly. He’s probably the most iconic filmmaker in the history of surf culture. He passed in his sleep.”
Brown was born in 1937 in San Francisco, California. When he was 10, he, along with his family, moved to Long Beach, where he quickly fell in love with surfing. Of course, it was a very different scene back then, and Brown’s career would act as the original mold for the shape of modern day surfing. “Shit, everyone surfs,” Brown told The Inertia in June. “Doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs. It’s kind of like now it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but when I was a teenager you didn’t want to tell many people that you were a surfer… Surfing basically had a bad rap at the time, thanks to Hollywood. I thought, ‘Well, the The Endless Summer will give it some dignity.’”
According to The Encyclopedia of Surfing, Brown’s first-ever surf movie was an 8-millimeter short created from a Navy submarine off Honolulu in the mid-’50s. By 1957, Brown was back in California. Dale Velzy saw the potential in the young filmmaker and bought him a 16-millimeter, then put him on a flight to Hawaii. The ball was rolling, and Brown made his first full-length surf film, entitled Slippery When Wet. “Slippery was easygoing, colorful, neatly edited, and scored by West Coast jazz favorite Bud Shank,” wrote Matt Warshaw on EOS, “but the movie was, in large part, defined by Brown’s smooth and casual narration.”
Soon after, Brown released Surf Crazy (1959) and Barefoot Adventure (1960), both of which were filmed in Mexico, California, and Hawaii. His movies are now staple documentaries of surfing’s halcyon days. By 1961, he’d released Surfing Hollow Days, which included the first ride at Pipeline ever caught on film. “He was the first guy to really put together what we consider a real film about surfing,” said Kempton. “He was the only filmmaker who broke out to a mainstream audience to tell people around the world what surfing was about.”
In 1966, The Endless Summer, revamped onto 35-millimeter film and re-edited, was shown in theaters all over the United States. It was named one of 1966’s 10 Best Films by Newsweek and cemented him as one of the best filmmakers of his time. In 1971, he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary for On Any Sunday, a movie about motorcycling co-produced by the legendary Steve McQueen.
By the mid-’70s, Brown was mostly retired. He spent the next two decades doing exactly what he wanted. “[Brown] spent 20 years restoring and racing cars, playing the stock market, and deep-sea fishing,” wrote Warshaw on EOS.
Films, however, proved too much of a temptation for him, and in 1992 he released The Endless Summer II. Hollywood threw money at the project, but like many sequels, the magic wasn’t quite the same. Still, though, Brown’s handiwork with the original shone brightly. Nearly all of the surf films in the decades afterward borrowed something from it. He was thoroughly intoxicated with surfing and his films showed just how much he loved it. “First thing he would have me do was make sure I had a bottle of cold vodka ready for him at the end of a day of surfing,” said Randy Rarick, former executive director of the Triple Crown of Surfing, to The Inertia. “He lived life to the fullest. He was the original grom and through the media, he projected it to the rest of the world.”
Brown was the winner of numerous awards for his contributions to surfing: Waterman Achievement Award from the Surf Industry Manufacturer’s Association and a Lifetime Achievement award from Surfer Magazine, to name a few. In 2009, he earned a spot on the Surfer’s Hall of Fame in Huntington Beach.
Brown, however, never fell victim to the adoration of the surfing world. “I’m grateful of course,” he told The Inertia in May of 2017, “but I think I get too much credit.”
Well, Mr. Brown: credit where credit is due. The surfing world–and the world in general–is worse without you in it. Randy Rarick put it best: “He was a man of the world and of surf, and I’m sorry to see him gone.”
Our condolences to the friends, family, and everyone affected by the loss of the man who almost single-handedly gave us a lifestyle we all love so much.
The Inertia‘s Joe Carberry contributed to this report.