Alan Root, Oft-Bitten Wildlife Filmmaker, Dies at 80

“He’d just flown for five hours after injuring himself in a motorbike accident in the forest in Zaire,” the filmmaker Mark Deeble, a friend for whom Mr. Root was a mentor, said of one such reunion, “and his lip was in tatters after a ‘tame’ marsh mongoose had fastened on and decided it was edible.”

Interview with Joan and Allen Root Video by Nebraska State Historical Society

Mr. Root was born on May 12, 1937, in London, where his father managed a fish-paste factory until after World War II, when a new job took him and the family to Kenya. While still a boy, Mr. Root started filming animals, mostly snakes, using an eight-millimeter camera.

His earliest professional jobs included working on the 1959 documentary “Serengeti Shall Not Die,” which was being made by the father-son team of Bernhard and Michael Grzimek. When Michael Grzimek was killed in a plane crash before the film was finished, Mr. Root took it upon himself to complete the movie, which went on to win an Oscar.

In 1961 he married Joan Thorpe, the daughter of a British coffee farmer in Nairobi, and the two collaborated on documentaries that helped bring the natural world to television viewers in England and the United States in vivid fashion.

“Baobab: Portrait of a Tree” (1973) examined the birds, insects and other animals that live in a particular type of tree found in Africa. “The Year of the Wildebeest” (1975) tracked the migration of the great herds in the central African plains. “Mysterious Castles of Clay” (1978) was about giant termite mounds.


Mr. Root in the 1990s.


The Roots are said to have shown the American zoologist Dian Fossey, of “Gorillas in the Mist” fame, her first mountain gorillas. Years later Mr. Root filmed a sequence for that 1988 movie, in which Sigourney Weaver played Fossey.

The Roots turned their home on Lake Naivasha in Kenya into a sort of sanctuary, harboring all sorts of animals. The writer George Plimpton was a frequent visitor.

“On one occasion,” he wrote in a 1999 article for The New Yorker titled “The Man Who Was Eaten Alive,” a reference to Mr. Root’s run-ins with wildlife, “what I thought was a water bed on the far side of the living room got up, walked out the door, across the grass, and into the lake — a pet hippo named Sally.”

Joan Root stayed…

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