James Michael Sullivan: 1946-2013

Broadcast journalist and producer Mike Sullivan — one of the guiding figures behind FRONTLINE for more than two decades — passed away suddenly at his home in Marblehead, Mass., on Sunday, June 23.

“Mike spent over 25 years working with us,” says David Fanning, FRONTLINE’s founder and executive producer. “He was big hearted and big thinking, a larger-than-life presence in our office, and a committed broadcast journalist who held us all to the highest standards of journalism. It’s profoundly sad to think of him gone.”

“Whether he was exploring the intersection of religion and public life in God in America, asking haunting questions about the West’s failure to prevent genocide in Ghosts of Rwanda, or investigating the man at the center of the political crime of the 20th century in Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?, Mike’s deep sense of intellectual curiosity and his passion for big ideas powered many of FRONTLINE’s landmark documentaries,” says Raney Aronson-Rath, FRONTLINE deputy executive producer. “Mike’s death is a huge loss, and we will miss him terribly.”

A graduate of Harvard University, Sullivan began his broadcast career as a news and documentary cameraman in Portland, Oregon. He later joined Minneapolis CBS affiliate WCCO-TV, where he developed and served as executive producer of the station’s award-winning investigative and documentary units—and was noted for his commitment to mentoring emerging journalists.

In 1987, Sullivan joined FRONTLINE as senior producer—where, over the next 25 years, he supervised the production of major FRONTLINE projects including Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald? (1993), The Gulf War (1996), The Farmer’s Wife (1998), Pope John Paul II: The Millennial Pope (1999), and  Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero (2002).

As executive producer of special projects, he championed films like Ghosts of Rwanda (2004); Country Boys (2006); The Mormons (a 2007 co-production with American Experience); God in America (a 2010 co-production with American Experience); The Interrupters (2012); and Kind Hearted Woman (2013). He also acted as executive producer on special projects for PBS, including The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud and Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy.

In February of this year, Sullivan told the public media newspaper Current that he took particular pride in his work on documentaries involving religion: “I thought we needed more sensible coverage of religion and its impact on the American scene,” Sullivan said. “We first discovered that when we did From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians in 1998 …. Now it runs every Christmas.”

“Mike cared deeply about FRONTLINE and its mission,” says David Fanning. “He was always ready to challenge ideas, and dig into the stories he was working on. We relied on him for his intellect and his passion. We will miss his presence, his memorable laugh and his genuine concern for his friends and colleagues.”

Mike Sullivan left FRONTLINE in early 2013, his films having won dozens of national awards including duPont-Columbia batons, Emmy Awards and Peabody Awards.

Below is a reel of Sullivan’s work showed at his retirement party in February.

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