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A Life That Mattered: Robert Guenette, 1935-2003

By Joseph E. Miller

by Joseph E. Miller and Barbara Leigh Gregson

Robert Guenette, Emmy Award-winning writer, producer and director who produced documentaries for CBS, NBC, ABC, HBO, PBS and Showtime, passed away on October 31, 2003, after a two-year battle with cancer. He was 68.

Guenette, one of the IDA's co-founders and the first recipient of the IDA's Pioneer Award, was fond of saying that documentarians' work "mustn't end with making films about social causes. They must live social causes and answer the call for social service with the same passion and commitment that they bring to their films." 

It was a creed that Bob lived by. It was his passion. But Bob had many passions. He was passionate about his love for his wife and collaborator of 40 years, Fran Guenette. He was also passionate about his friends. But most of all, he was passionate about making sure that his life mattered. It was all he had to give, after all.  

Barbara and I were awestruck by his passion for filmmaking, and especially for the documentary. Yet it wasn't his dozens of groundbreaking and award-winning television and documentary films, or his three Emmys or even the IDA that made Bob swell with pride. Rather, it was helping others actually make a difference in their lives.  

Even while undergoing debilitating radiation therapy, he continued working on behalf of the IDA and the Los Angeles Media and Education Center (LAMEC), which he co-founded in late 1994 with longtime friend and associate, documentary producer Bob Leeburg.  Leeburg recalls, "To see Bob realize his dream of bringing people of all ages, colors, backgrounds and neighborhoods together onto one stage at the Ivar Theatre during the LAMEC festival was an inspiration. He turned to me on the night of the student symphony and said, 'This is one of the happiest nights of my life.'"

Filmmaker Mel Stuart recognized Bob's unique talents more than 35 years ago and introduced him to David Wolper, suggesting that he be hired. "Bob was an absolutely perfect producer," Wolper reflects. "No bull, and got the job done. He brought it in on budget and on time and did everything in a calm and relaxed way, and his work was always first rate. As terrific as he was as a producer, he was that good as a human being." Stuart is quick to add, "He will be missed."

It was almost two decades ago that Barbara first introduced me to Bob. I remember his interest in my work and his wanting to know how it impacted society. After thinking about my answers for a moment he told me, "Just remember, all we have to give is a life that matters." He wasn't being preachy; he was being Bob. 

Another longtime friend, Stephen Nichols, visited Bob just two days before he passed away. Stephen told me that while he and Bob "talked about many things, he never complained. He said he was trying not to be a whiner. I remember thinking, ‘Imagine that. After all he has given in his life, he was still giving more by trying not to be a burden when he was ill.' Bob was a prince, a mentor to many and a real friend. He was one of the few true friends I have had in my life. There aren't words to describe how much I will miss Bob. I will always carry the memory of his selflessness and dedication to those in need as an ideal to strive for in my own life. I hope he knows how much I loved him."

Bob, rest easy, dear friend. Your life mattered, and you will be missed.   


Joseph E. Miller has made over 50 documentaries. Barbara Leigh Gregson is a specialist in film research and clearances, with hundreds of television, documentary and feature credits.