Friday, September 7, 2018

Dale Bell: A Life That Hasn’t Backfired

At a reunion of journalists who’d fought the good fight as late-Sixties staffers on UCLA’s  Daily Bruin, I didn’t expect to end up talking movies. But a former staff writer named Liz had brought along her husband, and that’s how I discovered Dale Bell’s remarkable career. Over a lifetime in showbiz, Dale has accrued 23 producer credits, while also racking up awards as a writer, director, and cinematographer. One of his earliest credits is surely the flashiest: he was an associate producer of the iconic 1970 documentary, Woodstock. Since then, he’s worked on feature films, broadcasts from the Kennedy Center, and TV programs galore. He’s known everyone from Martin Scorsese (part of the editing team on Woodstock) to Andre Previn, from Betty Friedan to Leonard Bernstein. Now, at 80, he’s devoting himself to documenting  the social ills of our day, of which more later. Retirement?  He’s just not interested.

Dale started out as a well-bred young east coaster: he attended prep school and then entered Princeton as a star decathlete. But his life changed forever when a date took him to opening night of Broadway’s Cat on the Hot Tin Roof. Afterwards she brought him backstage to meet Barbara Bel Geddes, Ben Gazzara,  Burl Ives, and her own mother, actress Mildred Dunnock. Dale still gets misty when describing this very special introduction to the world of the theatre. Soon he was playing a leading role in his campus production of The Pirates of Penzance, and then producing summer stock near the Princeton campus. Any form of storytelling—on stage, on film—still arouses his passion. (He first met Liz at L.A.’s Music Center, where they had both gone solo to enjoy a production of Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West. Eventually, they were wed. )

In recent years, Dale has kept busy writing, directing, and producing tough-minded documentaries for public television. The latest of these hits the tube starting today: it’s called Backfired:When VW Lied to America, and it chronicles the massive deception perpetrated by Germany’s Volkswagen in the early years of this century. Advertising its “clean diesel” automobiles as a boon to the environment, VW sold cars in the millions, worldwide. It took a team of researchers in West Virginia, backed up by the California Air Resources Board, to uncover the truth: VW had installed a so-called “defeat device” in all its models, as a way to fool the testing equipment monitoring vehicle emissions. The sad truth: more than forty times the legal limits of noxious fumes and pollutants were being released into the atmosphere by VW cars. In the words of narrator Warren Olney, a well-known L.A. broadcaster, “The promise of clean emissions was nothing but a corporate smoke screen.”

Backfired follows the whole dirty story, from the invention of diesel fuel to the popularity of the cute little Volkswagen “Love Bug” in the Sixties to the widespread public outcry after the company’s lies were exposed in 2015. More than one-half million cars in the U.S. were affected (along with many millions more worldwide), and Backfired delves into the way the state of California, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Environmental Protection Agency joined forces to make VW mitigate the damage it had caused, to the tune of billions of dollars in fines. Said one commentator, “In a funny way, VW helped raise people’s consciousness,” leading to bumper stickers like “VW took me for a ride” as well as an expanded push among auto-makers for renewal energy sources.  I thank Dale Bell for cluing me in on a case of  corporate wrongdoing that may end up doing some long-term good.


  1. Great career still going strong. He's left all those others behind. Dale, keep it up!