Pop historian and bestselling author Stephen Ambrose, whose Band of Brothers was turned into HBO's Emmy-winning miniseries and the guy who taught Steven Spielberg all about D-Day for Saving Private Ryan, died Sunday following a bout with lung cancer. He was 66.
Ambrose, a longtime smoker, passed away at Hancock Medical Center near his home in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. He checked into the hospital on Saturday complaining of heart problems.
For most of his life, Ambrose toiled in obscurity as a history professor, penning books on World War II and the American West, as well as epic biographies on Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.
But he didn't really dent the bestseller lists until the 1990s, with such WWII books as D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II and Citizen Soldiers, along with the Lewis and Clark history Undaunted Courage and Nothing Like It in the World, his account of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Ambrose, a gripping raconteur in real life, was known for his sparse, narrative style that made history fun to read. So fun, that Hollywood inevitably came a-calling.
In 1997, Ambrose was tapped as a commentator for Ken Burns' PBS documentary Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery.
Then he got an even bigger break, when Spielberg hired him on as chief consultant for Saving Private Ryan, which painstakingly recreated the Normandy landing in all its blood-streaked madness and earned Spielberg an Oscar for Best Director.
Spielberg and his Ryan star Tom Hanks were so taken with Ambrose that they agreed to adapt the historian's spirited 1992 book Band of Brothers, recounting the saga of a group of elite Army paratroopers in World War II, into the critically acclaimed 13-part miniseries for HBO.
Band of Brothers, which aired in late 2001 in the aftermath of September 11, went on to win six Emmys, including Best Miniseries. It also won a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award.
"By sharing with us his delight in the experiences of others--from Ike Eisenhower and Meriwhether Lewis to Dick Winters and Carwood Lipton--Steven Ambrose gave us a magnificent record of the history made by those people. He also entertained us immensely," Hanks said in a statement Monday.
Ambrose was born January 10, 1936, in Decatur, Illinois, the son of a doctor who served in the Navy during World War II. He grew up in Whitewater, Wisconsin, and spent his early years protesting American involvement in Vietnam. But it was his love of history and heroes that drew him into the world of academia, spending most of his career at the University of New Orleans.
He was quite prolific, turning out a book a year throughout the '80s and '90s.
However, his record pace didn't exactly make for good scholarship. Earlier this year, he was accused of plagiarizing passages in five of his books. He later apologized, blaming careless editing for failing to use quotation marks, but said he still footnoted his work giving credit where credit was due.
Ambrose spent the last few years on the lecture circuit as well as giving historical tours for a company run by his son. The Wall Street Journal estimated his family company, which helped him research and write his books, was bringing in $3 million a year. Ambrose had made substantial donations to the Eisenhower Center and the National D-Day Museum.
After being diagnosed with lung cancer six months ago, Ambrose set about writing his memoirs, To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian. The book, Ambrose's 37th, is scheduled for release November 19. HBO will release the Band of Brothers DVD and VHS box sets on November 5.