Joshua Rich
February 20, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

It’s a wonder that, until three weeks ago, Errol Morris had never been nominated for an Oscar. He is, after all, one of the most respected directors around, having crafted celebrated documentaries like A Brief History of Time; Fast, Cheap & Out of Control; and Mr. Death. And, as usual, his latest feature, the nominated The Fog of War, has inspired a kind of buzz that doesn’t usually surround nonfiction fare. Which is all to say that the nod wasn’t a surprise — it was just a long time coming.

Not bad for a guy who backed his way into movies. The Long Island native bounced from Wisconsin to Princeton to Berkeley, where he spent more time interviewing serial killers and bumming around the Pacific Film Archive than studying graduate philosophy. ”At one point I thought I would write a Ph.D. thesis on the insanity plea,” says Morris, 56, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., with his wife and son. ”And then I probably went insane myself and started making movies.”

His first documentary, the 1978 pet-cemetery classic Gates of Heaven, was lauded by director Wim Wenders even before it was finished. Then director Werner Herzog literally ate his shoe after losing a bet that Morris, a plodding perfectionist, would never get it done (that event itself was documented in a short, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe). And today, Heaven is still in Roger Ebert’s all-time top 10. Morris chuckles, ”I still am looking to make another movie that Roger Ebert likes as much as Gates of Heaven!”

Docus about physics, lion tamers, and Holocaust deniers followed. His 1988 film, The Thin Blue Line, led to the exoneration of a death-row inmate. And his eighth, Fog, focuses on former defense secretary and Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara. ”We are all the central protagonists in our own drama,” Morris says. ”The interesting thing about McNamara is that his personal drama is also a historical drama.”

”He’s fascinated by the bizarre,” says Kevin Macdonald, who profiled Morris for TV and whose current docudrama, Touching the Void, draws on some of Morris’ oft-imitated styles: dramatic reenactment and subjects who directly address the camera. ”Errol really stands out in the history of documentary, having done [work] that, at the same time as being very idiosyncratic and personal, has gone on to influence documentaries widely.”

TV ads, too, thanks to high-profile gigs for diverse companies like Apple, United Airlines, and Miller beer. ”It’s probably terrible to admit,” Morris says, ”but I learn a lot doing it and I enjoy it.” And it keeps him constantly busy — so much so that, even with the Oscar nod, he hasn’t fully turned to his next project. Nothing strange enough has come along.

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