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OBITUARIES : Charles Gary Allison, 1938 - 2008

He oversaw 25-volume history of Olympics

May 25, 2008|Claire Noland | Times Staff Writer

Charles Gary Allison realized he had found his life's work after meeting two Olympic champions more than half a century after they competed in the 1896 Summer Games.

A writer and film producer who was always looking for interesting stories to tell, Allison often described his random encounters in the 1950s and '60s with pole vaulter William Hoyt and shot putter and discus thrower Robert Garrett.

Inspired by the recollections of these nearly forgotten American athletes, Allison began unraveling the tales of the 13-member U.S. team that traveled to Greece for the 1896 revival of the Olympic Games.

Then he decided to broaden his scope. As chairman of "The Olympic Century" project, he oversaw a staff of writers and researchers that churned out a 25-volume history of the modern Olympics. Winning the cooperation of the International Olympic Committee, he licensed the series to the IOC and the U.S. Olympic Committee as an official history.

Allison, who had been working on the latest volume taking the series through the 2006 Winter Games, died May 13 of a heart attack at his Los Angeles home, his sister Rona Wooley said. He was 69.

"He was absolutely committed to the history of the Olympic Games," said Anita DeFrantz, a former rower who won a bronze medal in 1976 and is the senior U.S. representative to the IOC. "His goal was to have the history of the Olympic movement taught in schools throughout the United States and the world."

Two volumes of "The Olympic Century" series were released in 1996 in conjunction with the Olympic centennial. In a review for Sports Illustrated that year, Ron Fimrite called the collection "an important historical document but also a most pleasurable read."

The first volume dealt with the ancient Olympics and the 1896 revival; each subsequent book covered a four-year Olympiad. Allison planned a direct-marketing campaign to consumers, but after sales fell short he found a niche with schools and libraries.

"The amazing thing Gary did was he brought together photos you had never seen before," said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, who produces a definitive Olympic reference book that is updated for each Games.

"He was going to lost archives in each country," Wallechinsky said. "He didn't just go to the [International Olympic Committee] and say, 'Do you have some photos?' He really did deep research. His visual presentation was just fantastic.

"It was quite an ambitious project."

The initial result of Allison's research was "The First Olympics: Athens 1896," a five-hour NBC miniseries that he helped produce in 1984. He and William Bast, who co-wrote Part 1 of the program, and Harold Gast, who wrote Part 2, shared the Writers Guild of America award in the multipart long-form series category.

Allison got his training at the USC film school. As a graduate student, he wrote and produced a feature movie, "Fraternity Row," about a college fraternity hazing incident.

Made entirely by students with the exception of professional actors in the five principal roles, it was judged "totally spellbinding and devastatingly accurate" by then-Times film writer Kevin Thomas. Released by Paramount Pictures in 1977, it won a special commendation from the Los Angeles Film Critics for breaking new ground in student filmmaking.

After earning a master of fine arts degree from the cinema school in 1976 and a master's in professional writing a year later, Allison began writing scripts and developing film projects.

Known as Gary to friends and family, he was born July 12, 1938, in Newport, R.I., to a career Navy man and his wife. The family moved to Cupertino, Calif., when he was a youth.

He studied international relations at USC in the late 1950s, then joined the Army. He was assigned to the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, which serves as the presidential honor guard and patrols the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

After fulfilling his military commitment in 1963, he remained in Washington, D.C., and married the former Ellen Walker. He worked with the nonpartisan Presidential Classroom for Young Americans program before returning to USC.

Allison eventually separated from his wife, though they never divorced. She died in the late 1990s. His sister survives him.

Funeral services are scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery. Instead of flowers, donations may be made in the name of Charles Gary Allison to the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Office of the Dean, George Lucas Instructional Building, Room 209, 850 W. 34th St., Los Angeles, CA 90089-2211.


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