Jim Allison: Breakthrough
Watch on the PBS Video App

Jim Allison: Breakthrough

About the Film

The story of one warmhearted, stubborn man’s visionary quest to find a cure for cancer, Jim Allison: Breakthrough is an homage to an unconventional superhero a pioneering, harmonica-playing scientist who triumphed over a doubtful medical establishment to save innumerable lives around the world. In 2018, Jim Allison won the Nobel Prize for discovering the immune system’s role in defeating cancer, but his long journey to get there was filled with barriers and criticism.  MORE

With the help of narrator Woody Harrelson, director Bill Haney spotlights the perseverance of Allison starting with his days as a young, curious boy growing up in Texas whose life is shattered when he loses his mother to cancer. He grows into a headstrong, shaggy-haired, music-loving college student fascinated by immunotherapy, and he starts on a path to find a cure for the disease that so profoundly impacted his life. His research leads him to the discovery of the T-cell receptor, and its role in fighting cancer. Allison’s seminal discovery put him at odds with the entire medical community at the time, as he endured repeated setbacks, personal and professional, from a system not built to encourage breakthrough innovation. 

The Filmmaker

Bill Haney is a filmmaker, inventor, and entrepreneur. As a writer, director, and producer of both narrative and documentary films, he has won The Gabriel Prize, a Silver Hugo, and IDA’s Pare Lorentz Award. Additional awards include a Marine Conservation Award, Genesis Award and awards from Amnesty International and Earthwatch. Bill’s portfolio as a filmmaker includes award-winning documentaries on socially important subjects such as coal mining (The Last Mountain, 2011) and worker exploitation (The Price of Sugar, 2007) and his work as writer/producer on Tim Disney’s civil rights drama, American Violet.


Film Credits

Written, Produced and Directed by
Bill Haney

Produced by  
Jennifer Pearce

Edited by
Peter Rhodes

Narrated by 
Woody Harrelson

Music by
Mark Orton and Mickey Raphael

Executive Producers
Tim Disney
R.J. Cutler
Maura McCarthy

Associate Producers
Matt Shelley-Reade
Finn Haney
Principal Cinematography
Graham Talbot
Nelson Talbot

Design & Lead Animation
Molly Schwartz

James Allison
Murphy Allison
Nana-Ama Anang
James Belvin
Lilybeth Belvin
Robert Belvin
Sharon Belvin
Eric Benson
Jeffrey Bluestone
Pat Coym
Michael Curran
Rachel Humphrey
Patrick Hwu
Tyler Jacks
G. Barrie Kitto
Alan Korman
Max Krummel
Lewis Lanier
Dan Littman
Nils Lonberg
Ira Mellman
Andrew Pollack
David Raulet
Matt Richtel
Janice Schifferli
Padmanee Sharma
Elliott Sigal
Harold Varmus
Spencer Wei
Jedd Wolchok

Dylan Leiner
Peter Newman
Reed Paul Jobs
Sean E. Reilly

Susan Shopmaker
Young Jim Allison
Elliott Connolly

Julie Rosenberg
Archival Researcher
Roberta Helling
Additional Music
John Hancock

Additional Cinematography
Jerry Risius
Andrew Black
Allie Humenuk
P.H. O’Brien
Thorsten Thielow

Sound Recording
Ray Day
Richard Harris
Judy Karp
Tim Dallesandro

Assistant Camera
Megan Blackburn
Cameron-Michael Boyell
Martin Bustamante
Kay Ennis
Laura Kenmotsu
Scott Ruderman

Hassan Nadji

Animation Producer
Angela Foster
Eve Strickman

Ariel Martian
Jason Conradt
Dana Schechter
Solgil Oh

Photo Retoucher
Nola Romano
Still Photography
Wyatt McSpadden

Music Supervisor
Jeanne Fox

Production Assistants
Atarah Jeffers
Alejandro Watson
Addison Wolf

Assistant Editor
Matt Shelley-Reade

Offline Colorist
Mark Chesak

Post-Production Assistant Editor
Ben Reichman

Post-Production Services
Finish Boston

Audio Post-Production
Heart Punch Studio

Narration Record Studio
Twin Peaks Creative

Score Produced, Recorded and Mixed
Camp Watertown Studios

Composer Assistant and Copyist
Eric Phillips

Musical Special Thanks
Megan Orton, Violin
Gideon Freudmann, Cello

Additional Recording
Revolver Studios

Production Consultant
MJ Peckos

Sales Representation
Submarine Entertainment

Accounting Service
Suzanne Elwin

Legal Services
Tom R. Camp

Archival Materials Provided by
Alice Echo News-Journal
James Allison
Malinda Allison
Robert Allison
The American Association of Immunologists
The Associated Press
Sharon Belvin
Clay and Allene Blaker
Bill Branson
Bristol Myers-Squibb
C3 Presents
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives
The Daily Texan
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Del Rio News-Herald
The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History
Getty Images
Historic Films
Hotel Boulderado
Rachel Humphreyi
Stock Photo
Journal of Experimental Medicine
Milosh Kitchovitch
Toby Knox
Alan Korman
Matthew Krummel
Lewis Lanier
Craig Lee
Nils Lonberg
Melissa Mellard
Wyatt McSpadden
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
National Cancer Institute
National Institute of Health
NBC News Archives
Nobel Media AB
Oddball Films
Odessa American
Paul O’Rear
Joe Palca
Producers Library
Wallace and Euna Pryor
Sony Music Entertainment
Stanford Medical History Center
The Taylor Publishing Company
Texas Archive of the Moving Image
Texas Exes
Texas House of Representatives
Texas State Library and Archives Commission
Texas Student Media
University of California, Berkeley
University of Chicago Medicine
The University of Texas, Austin
University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
WGBH Media Library & Archives
Gordon Wilkison
Carolyn Witliff

“Cigarettes, Whiskey and Wild, Wild, Women”
Written by Tim Spencer
Performed by James Allison
Used by Permission

“I’m a King Bee”
Written by James Moore
Performed by James Allison
Used by Permission

“Mr Record Man”
Written and Performed by Willie Nelson
Used by Permission

“Miles and Miles of Texas”
Written by Thomas William Camfield and Diane Johnston
Performed by Mike Coykendall
Used by Permission

“Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”
Written by Richard Alves, Buddy Cannon, John Colgin, Mike McQuerry, Willie Nelson, Mark Reynolds, and Ashley Wilson
Performed by Willie Nelson
Courtesy of Legacy Recordings
By arrangement with Sony Music Entertainment

Special Thanks
Maria Alexander
Robert Allison
Oluwatomisin Atolagbe
Clara Bingham
Cancer Research Institute
The Checkmates Band
Gregory Colbert
Cecele Denman
Diane Feingersh
Ernie Fusco
Gene Gobble
Phil Greenberg
Paul Guifoyle
F. Stephen Hodi
Shirley Lindsey
James Mancuso
Scott Merville
Peter Newman
Shelley Reed
Antoni Ribas
Naveen Sharma
Irv Weissman
Rose Weldon
Melanie Yap

Fiscal Sponsor
Filmmakers Collaborative

Funded in part by
Michael Eisenson

Original Series Funding Provided by 
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Wyncote Foundation
The National Endowment for the Arts

Jim Allison: Breakthrough is a presentation of War We Can Win, LLC in association with Uncommon Productions.

This program was produced by War We Can Win, LLC, which is solely responsible for its content.

© 2019 War We Can Win, LLC. All rights reserved.

Who are the medical or scientific heroes who've had an impact on your own life? Had you heard of Jim Allison before seeing this film?


  • Bergen International Film Festival
    Golden Owl Award
  • American Film Festival
    Audience Award (Nominee)
Please review our comment guidelines.
Who are the medical or scientific heroes who've had an impact on your own life? Had you heard of Jim Allison before seeing this film?