Morgan Spurlock, documentary filmmaker behind ‘Super Size Me,’ dies at 53

The documentary about a 30-day McDonald's diet made $22 million, earned an Oscar nomination and put Spurlock on the map. He later retreated from Hollywood after admitting to sexual misconduct.

Morgan Spurlock, the muckraking documentary filmmaker who chronicled a 30-day period when he ate only McDonald’s food in the Oscar-nominated “Super Size Me,” a project that helped raise awareness about the dangers of poor nutrition, died Thursday in New York from complications of cancer.

He was 53.

“It was a sad day, as we said goodbye to my brother Morgan,” Spurlock’s brother Craig said in a statement. “Morgan gave so much through his art, ideas and generosity. Today the world has lost a true creative genius and a special man. I am so proud to have worked together with him.”

In a professional directing career that spanned more than a decade, Spurlock bit into a wide range of sociopolitical issues, including the Bush-era War on Terror (“Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?”), corporate power (“The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”) and masculine identity (“Mansome”). He also directed the 3-D concert film “One Direction: This Is Us,” released in 2013.

From the archives: Morgan Spurlock speaks about ‘Super Size Me’ in 2004

He was a regular presence on television, too. He created and hosted “30 Days,” a three-season FX reality show that followed people as they experimented with crash-course lifestyles like working for minimum wage or living off the power grid. He made nonfiction shows for Hulu and CNN.

But the 2004 documentary film “Super Size Me” was by far his best-known creative venture and claim to fame. In the movie, he recorded the month of his life when he ate nothing but burgers, fries and other quick-fix staples from McDonald’s — an experiment that he claimed took a toll on his mental and physical health.

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The documentary helped boost public consciousness about the nutritional content of fast food and America’s obesity epidemic, inspiring a backlash against McDonald’s and other big-name restaurant chains. “Super Size Me” was nominated for best documentary feature at the 77th Academy Awards in 2005.

“Super Size Me” provoked a national debate and grossed more than $22 million on a modest $65,000 budget. But it came under the microscope over the accuracy of some of its claims about health and science. Spurlock’s disclosure in 2017 that he was drinking heavily through much of his life put his purported symptoms in a new light.

Morgan Spurlock
Morgan Spurlock at the Los Angeles premiere of his film “Super Size Me,” in 2004, in Los Angeles. Mark J. Terrill / AP file

In recent years, Spurlock’s public image was severely damaged after he published a December 2017 blog post titled “I am Part of the Problem.” In the first-person essay, he admitted to what he characterized as a pattern of sexual misconduct and infidelities going back years. He said he was accused of sexual assault in college and settled a sexual harassment case with a female assistant.

In the blog post, published in the early months of the #MeToo movement, Spurlock also revealed that he had been the victim of sexual abuse as a boy and teenager, and that he had “consistently been drinking since the age of 13.”

Spurlock was born on Nov. 7, 1970, in Parkersburg, West Virginia. He received a bachelor of fine arts degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in the early 1990s, and he spent the next decade working in the trenches of the entertainment business.

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Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock
Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock accepts the award for Documentary Title of the Year on July 27, 2005 in Las Vegas.Ethan Miller / Getty Images file

In making the leap to documentaries, Spurlock took a page from Michael Moore, a filmmaker known for his brash, confrontational style. Moore’s seminal documentary “Roger & Me” taught him that “a documentary could have a sense of humor and be more than a fly-on-the-wall movie,” Spurlock told The Wall Street Journal in 2008.

In addition to his directing and hosting work, Spurlock founded the production company Warrior Poets. He stepped down from the New York-based company after publishing his 2017 blog post.

“He deeply valued the creative contributions of the talented people who worked on his projects, developing a cadre of freelance production professionals who came back time and again,” Spurlock’s representatives said in a statement.

Spurlock is survived by his sons Laken and Kallen; his mother Phyllis; his father Ben; brothers Craig and Barry; and his former wives Alexandra Jamieson and Sara Bernstein, according to the statement. The statement said that memorial service arrangements will be announced in the near future.

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