When Anthony Bourdain, the chef, bestselling author and globetrotting TV star,, the news stunned those closest to him. New York City chef Gabrielle Hamilton was shattered: “I had to go home and lie down on the floor, I mean, actually for kind of weeks,” she said.
Lydia Tenaglia, who produced his hit show “Parts Unknown,” was mystified: “Why would someone who seemingly had the best job in the world, the most incredible life, why would he make a decision to, you know, check out?”
His brother, Christopher Bourdain, struggled with so many other emotions.
Correspondent Jim Axelrod asked, “Did you know he was suffering to that degree?”
“No. I did not know he was suffering to that degree. I miss him terribly, and love him still. And he was so brilliant, and he counted for so many people. And, like, you know, I’m angry at him! Like, why did you do that?”
But filmmaker Morgan Neville knew the shock was also shared by legions of Bourdain’s fans who never met the man. “I want people to be able to make some sense out of his death,” Neville said.
Axelrod asked, “Do you think there was a little bit of, ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ in Tony Bourdain’s life?”
“Absolutely. The story we’re telling is somebody who, in middle age, who has been working as a chef for 25 years, suddenly has world fame, fortune, and the chance to travel the globe. It’s everything he always wanted. The question is, what happens when you get everything you always wanted?”
His new documentary, “Roadrunner,” which opens in theaters July 16, is Neville’s attempt to answer that question, exploring this complexity elicited by the life and death of Anthony Bourdain.
To watch a trailer for “Roadrunner” click on the video player below:
Neville said, “I hope the film in some way gets people to start to think of him as a whole person again, to at least process some aspect of his death, but also his life.”
Anyone familiar with the extraordinary trajectory of Bourdain’s life, from $800-a-week line cook in sweaty New York City kitchens, to an invitation from a president for dinner in Viet Nam, knows that means examining quite a few dimensions.
Hamilton, whose restaurant Prune was one of the hottest in pre-pandemic New York City, met Bourdain as his bestseller “Kitchen Confidential” was launching him as a bold-faced name.
Axelrod asked, “Was Tony a good cook?”
“He would be the first to tell you that that was not his number one strength!” Hamilton replied.
He was a loyal but complicated pal. “It was such a one-way friendship,” she said. Which direction? “He would love you. He would be generous to you.”
Bourdain was quoted in a 2017 New Yorker article as saying, “The kind of care and feeding required of friends, I’m frankly incapable of … I’m not gonna remember your birthday.”
“Come on, that’s very Tony,” Hamilton laughed. “And it’s so candid and forthright. So, who cares if it’s like, ‘I don’t remember your birthday’?”
Neville said, “Somebody described him as the nicest a****** they ever met.”
“What do you think they’re getting at with that lovely description?” asked Axelrod.
“I think he could be really tough on people, particularly people he worked with, but because he was even tougher on himself.”
This high priest of camaraderie and connection, who built a brand shrinking the world one exotic meal at a time, also spent much of his life staving off loneliness and isolation, cycling through phases and addictions.
“Sometimes his addictions were good, like jujitsu and exercising, or family,” said Neville. “But sometimes they could be destructive, like cigarette smoking and drinking and even, I would say, workaholism. I think there was even this deeper psychological reason of being static; being home means that you’re left alone with your thoughts and, I guess, your demons.”
But as the documentary hauntingly portrays in a clip with one of his heroes, punk rock icon Iggy Pop, the one recipe that seemed to always elude Bourdain – the one for sustained contentment – wasn’t actually all that complicated.
Bourdain: “What thrills you?”
Iggy Pop: “This is very embarrassing, but being loved, and actually appreciating the people that are giving that to me.”
Axelrod said, “When he’s walking along with Iggy Pop asking him about happiness? It’s heartbreaking.”
“Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely,” said Christopher Bourdain.
Perhaps saddest for those who miss him most is that he died not really understanding all the lives he touched. Take the wall full of notes left after his suicide at a restaurant where Bourdain once cooked.
Lydia Tenaglia said, “When that outpouring came after his death, and all these people around the world responded in this incredible way, I just wish he could’ve seen that. Look at the incredible impact that you made in connecting humanity. That, to me, is, like, his really beautiful legacy.”
While the film deals extensively with the circumstances surrounding Bourdain’s death – following a break-up with Asia Argento, an Italian actress he’d grown infatuated with, this is a film that examines what happens to legacy when a high-profile life ends by suicide.
Axelrod asked Christopher Bourdain, “What do you think the meaning is for all of these people who still remained devoted to the memory of Tony Bourdain?”
“One of the unfortunate things about somebody who obviously has some kind of tragic part to them is, does that undermine or somehow diminish the message they were trying to get out there? Does it make what he was attempting to show us by going to places like, you know, Libya and the Congo, does it diminish what he was trying to show us and tell us? I don’t have an answer. I hope not.”
Morgan Neville has made a reminder of just what that message was: “Tony was THE advocate in our society for how we can treat people on the far side of the planet as dimensional people who have their own dreams and loves and families and hopes,” he said. “And I think that is the greatest achievement that he had.”
A message, and a messenger people haven’t had a chance to connect with in a while.
Tenaglia said, “I think a lot of people are gonna come to the film because they need that dose of him again. I just miss him. I miss him.”
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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Carol Ross.