LOS ANGELES — Bruce Brown, whose 1966 surfing documentary “The Endless Summer” molded the image of the surfer as a seeker of adventure and fulfillment and transformed the sport, has died. He was 80.
Brown died of natural causes Sunday in Santa Barbara, said Alex Mecl, general manager of Bruce Brown Films.
Along with the music of the Beach Boys, Brown took surfing from a quirky hobby to a fundamental part of American culture.
Surfers had largely been portrayed as beach blanket buffoons in the mindless party movies of the early 1960s.
Then came Brown and “The Endless Summer” with his beautiful, soulful story of surfers on a quest for fulfillment — an image that became emblazoned on the cultural psyche.
“His timing, everything, was perfect,” said legendary big-wave surfer Greg Noll, a friend of Brown’s since they were young and a fellow filmmaker.
People were interested in surfing and Brown took it to a new level, Noll told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
“Thank you for showing us the world as you saw it, Bruce Brown,” Kelly Slater, 11-time world champion surfer, said in an Instagram post Monday. “There are never enough words to say goodbye properly.”
Brown, who took up surfing in the early 1950s, had made five other documentaries about the sport before “The Endless Summer,” including 1958’s “Slippery When Wet” and 1960’s “Barefoot Adventure.”
Like all the others, it was shot on a tiny budget with Brown performing nearly every duty, from camera operator to narrator.
The film follows two surfers, Robert August and Mike Hynson, as they hop hemispheres to constantly surf wherever it is summer, from Hawaii to Australia to South Africa to Senegal.
“He had a great theme,” Noll said.
Surfers considered Brown a peer who just happened to carry a camera instead of a board. He shot the film loosely and casually and the style proved infectious when the public saw the movie.
“I never had formal training in filmmaking, and that probably worked to my advantage,” Brown said in a 2004 interview for his film company’s website.
The trio’s charisma and the film’s natural beauty made it an unlikely hit.
“The beautiful photography he brought home almost makes you wonder if Hollywood hasn’t been trying too hard,” Roger Ebert said in his 1967 review of the film in The Chicago Sun-Times.
The film inspired many surfers to leave their home beaches, drop out of their sedentary lives and seek isolated places with bigger waves.
Some surfers blamed Brown’s film for turning their serene spots into forever-crowded hot spots.
“A lot of people try to make me feel guilty about that,” Brown said in the 2004 interview, “and while I’m sure ‘Endless Summer’ hurried it up, the sport was growing by leaps and bounds simply because it’s so much fun. No one could have stopped it.”
Brown went on to make many other documentaries, most notably the 1971 film “On Any Sunday,” which gave the same treatment to motorcycle riding as “The Endless Summer” did to surfing. A sequel, “On Any Sunday II,” was released in 1981.
In 1994, he revisited his classic and made “The Endless Summer II” with his filmmaker son Dana Brown.
In 2009, he narrated a surfing-themed episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants” called “SpongeBob vs. The Big One.”
Brown was born in San Francisco and raised in Long Beach. He retired to a ranch near Santa Barbara, putting down the camera to ride motorcycles and surf.
“All the good guys are going . . . we were on the cusp of the giant wave of surfing that hit California and spread out to the rest of the world,” Noll said.