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Sydney Schanberg (1934-2016)


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Sydney Schanberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter of The New York Times whose real-life friendship with a Cambodian photographer/interpreter inspired the 1984 Oscar-winning film "The Killing Fields," has died at the age of 82. He had suffered a heart attack earlier in the week.


Directed by Roland Joffé ("The Mission"), the film about Cambodian genocide in the 1970s starred Sam Waterston as Schanberg and Dr. Haing S. Ngor as photographer Dith Pran. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Waterston), Best Supporting Actor (Ngor), Best Adapted Screenplay (Bruce Robinson), Best Film Editing (Jim Clark) and Best Cinematography (Chris Menges). Oscars went to Ngor, Clark and Menges.




Robinson's screenplay was based on Schanberg's 1980 cover piece for The New York Times Magazine titled "The Death and Life of Dith Pran." 


Schanberg, who covered Southeast Asia for The Times during the final stages of America's involvement in the Vietnam conflict, was forced to leave Dith Pran behind when the Communist Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot took control of Cambodia. Posing as an uneducated peasant, the photographer managed to survive several grueling years in the Indochinese country. It has been estimated that as many as 2 million Cambodians died as a result of the Khmer Rouge's genocide.


Schanberg never stopped searching for Dith Pran, and they were reunited when the Cambodian managed to escape into Thailand in October 1979. The photographer became an American citizen and worked for years as a photojournalist for The Times. He died of pancreatic cancer in New Jersey on March 30, 2008. He was 65.


Dr. Ngor, a Cambodian physician who fled to the West when the Khmer Rouge gained power, became the first Asian man to win an Academy Award for acting. It was his first role as an actor. He appeared in other films, including Oliver Stone's 1993 drama "Heaven and Earth." On February 25, 1996, Ngor was shot to death outside his home in downtown Los Angeles by members of an Asian street gang. He was 55. 



Waterston with Dith Pran and Schanberg outside The New York Times building in 1984




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