Documentary filmmaker Carl Colby


The award-winning documentary filmmaker shares the story of uncovering the truth about his father—a CIA spy and the subject of The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby.

Carl Colby has won several awards for his documentary films, which have included such subjects as Bob Marley, Frank Gehry and a film about Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, among others. He's also directed commercials, corporate communications and promotional films and TV specials. Born in Washington, DC, Colby lived abroad for most of his youth. He graduated from Georgetown University and had documentary production assignments that took him to more than 30 countries. In his latest project, he tackles the legacy of his late father, former CIA director William Colby.


Tavis: Carl Colby’s an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose latest project is his most personal to date. The new film tells the story, the secret story, in fact, of his father, former CIA director William Colby. It’s called “The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spy Master William Colby.” So here now, a scene from “The Man Nobody Knew.”


Tavis: I was just saying to you that the resemblance to your father is eerie. Not scary; I’m not saying that.

Carl Colby: A little spooky, maybe.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. (Laughter) You guys look alike. You can tell he’s your father.

That said, before I get into the specifics of this story, yours, of course, is a unique story. Each of our stories is unique.

Colby: Right.

Tavis: But for a son who, for whatever reason, did not know the real deal about his father, having done the research now, would you recommend that sons, any son, go in search of the truth about his father?

Colby: I think it’s the oldest story in the world.

Tavis: Yeah.

Colby: Who is your father? What’s your inheritance? I don’t mean financial. What did he bring you?

Tavis: Sure.

Colby: For women as well, who is their father or their mother? What legacy have you been left? In this case, it’s particularly personal because his job was deception. His job was keeping secrets, not telling you the truth. But we became part of the club or supported the membership of the club. Like my mother and I, our little things that we did, we took it on faith and trust that he was doing the right thing, and that’s the hard part, because what is he doing? You’re taking it on faith.

Tavis: Does that in any way arrest your develop as a boy, as a man, when you don’t know all the particulars about who your father is and what your father does, because you’re taking, to your point, your father’s word and his work on faith?

Colby: Yeah. It’d be like if one of your listeners, their father is a New York City police detective or LAPD and is not coming to your soccer practice this Friday or your basketball game on Thursday – they went to Mexico, or frankly, you don’t know where they are. They just leave. They’re not coming to that recital. They’re not even coming home that night. They may be coming home Sunday, Tuesday.

But you know they’re tasked with something special. They’re doing something for their country, and you’re taking it on faith and trust, and your mother is taking it on faith and trust, or in some cases it’s the spouses, the women are doing this. The men are at home. It’s a really fascinating field, and there are thousands of William Colbys out there right now, ready to ship off to Yemen or Somalia or wherever the president sends them.

Tavis: How do you grow up not believing that your father is doing something dubious? I’m asking that because if he’s keeping secrets from everybody else, he could be keeping secrets from you and your mother.

Colby: Right.

Tavis: How do you trust that?

Colby: Well, in our case my father was a war hero. He had parachuted into Nazi-occupied France and Norway, blowing up Nazi troop trains. So he would take us through France when we lived overseas, when we lived in Europe and we were in Italy and Rome, and he was running operations to counter the Soviets when the communists and the Christian democrats were contesting an election.

He’d say, “This is the ditch we lay in when the Germans went by,” and I’d say, “Well, why didn’t you shoot at them?”

He’d say, “Well, there were 600, 800 of them and only three of us.” So I thought he was a war hero. He was a brave person. He won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star. It’s just after a while you ask questions – what is it exactly that you’re doing?

I for instance told him once that oh, I met a guy, Mr. X, in Indonesia. Terrific guy and very fit and just a wonderful guy, really likes you a lot,” and he said, “Huh, very interesting. Never mention his name again.” So I realized, whoa, he must be deep cover. So I’m going to do my part, just my little part, to protect his name, and people would come over at the house, and all kinds of people would come over to the house.

You might see their picture in the paper the next day. Once I went down the stairs to our house in Saigon. My mother was consoling a woman all in black, a Vietnamese woman. Her husband had been a general. He was found floating on the Saigon River the day before, chopsticks in his ears and tortured.

So it was a very spooky world to grow up in, and you would have thought, well, maybe I’m anxiety-ridden, but because my father was always very cool, so was I.

Tavis: We saw the piece, the opening clip. We hear your voice telling us that your father was given the job as CIA director by Richard Nixon.

Colby: Right.

Tavis: What we did not see in that particular clip – of course, it comes out later in the documentary – is that he’s fired by the very next president.

Colby: Right.

Tavis: Gerald Ford. How did your dad get to be CIA and how and why did he end up being fired during the Ford administration?

Colby: Well, he was recruited into CIA right after he was OSS Jedburgh, jumping in Nazi-occupied Europe. So he went into the agency early ’50s. My mother didn’t even know what he was doing. She was talking to the neighbors once in southeast Washington where we lived, kind of like just a big housing complex, and the neighbor said, “Barbara, we wonder what he’s doing, because we drop him off over at the mall and we turn around and he’s hotfooting it across the street to another location, another building.”

She said that’s how she learned that my father was in a different line of work, as she says. At first it’s exciting. At first it’s like “Notorious” or “To Catch a Thief.” It’s kind of the fun parts of a Bond film. The hard part’s later, when people start to die, friends of yours that you know, President Diem or (unintelligible) who we knew in Saigon, and got murdered, and who was responsible.

Tavis: At what point did you start to consider whether or not your father was, in fact, a murderer?

Colby: Well, people would ask me during the Vietnam War, I was a teenager and they’d say that he was head of this Phoenix program and they’d say, “Your father’s an assassin, he’s a murderer,” and I’d say, “What are you talking about? You don’t know him.” Then I’d say, “Well, why are all these people being killed? Are they just enemy, and is he doing the right thing?”

That’s kind of the beginnings of the exploration, really, that my mother and I took, even in this film, to go through and see what does history tell us and what did he tell us, and I’d say he was an honorable man, but he took the hit, he made the sacrifice by really revealing all the secrets of the CIA up at that point in the 1970s when President Ford and the rest of the ilk wanted him to shut up and stonewall Congress.

Tavis: He got fired for?

Colby: He got fired for not lying to the American people.

Tavis: How much of this could you put to your father while he was living? When your friends are saying to you your father is a murderer and you have questions in your own mind about what your father really is doing, how much of this can you say to your father at dinner?

Colby: It was open season at the dinner table. We would argue about everything, and his way of being, just kind of to set the record straight, he was not a tough, brutish, big, physical, masculine, beating people up kind of guy. Not at all. He was more like a professor.

If you came over to our house you’d think, I guess he works for Prudential. Just goes home at 5:00, has a hobby. No hobbies. He worked all the time. But there was just a sense of him as being very driven and he would ask you and argue with you about Vietnam or whatever was going on, and if he disagreed with you, in the end he’d say, “Fair enough.” He’d be like, “Tavis, fair enough. You have your opinion, I have mine. Just consider mine.”

I think he was very confident, and I think any woman or man who takes on these covert assignments, like I know a woman now, early thirties, American, dark-complected, wears a shador, speaks fluent Urdu. She’s in Pakistan right now. You think she’s in danger? She’s running operations. Who’s going to cover her back?

There are thousands like that. We’re asking them to go out and do this work for us, and I think we’ve got to know more about it. Not the operational secrets, but it’s like the president’s hands are full. He’s got a lot on his plate. But he’s ordering up as much covert action as any president since the Kennedys.

I just think that I don’t want another CIA director to fall down the rabbit hole and be accused of being a murderer or assassin. I think we ought to own up to what we’re doing and accept it, or don’t do it at all.

Tavis: His name, Carl Colby. His new documentary is called “The Man Nobody Knew,” about the life of his father, former CIA director William Colby. Carl, good to have you on the program.

Colby: Hey, thank you.

Tavis: Thanks for your work.

Colby: Appreciate it.

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Last modified: December 26, 2011 at 1:30 pm