In search of his father, a spy |

In search of his father, a spy

Caramie Schnell
Vail, CO, Colorado

Like his father, Carl Colby is a quiet man. Understated. Highly intelligent. They both have probing eyes, and glasses that shield them.

The similarities end there.

Otherwise Colby would never have made his latest documentary, “The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father CIA Spymaster William Colby.”

“Carl’s an extraordinarily accomplished guy, but not someone who wears it on his sleeve,” said Howard Stone, Carl’s friend and a part-time Vail resident.

The film is showing Sunday at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek. The proceeds from the event will benefit the Vail Veterans Program.

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Carl lives part time in Vail, and part time in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Doe Browning. He wanted to show the film locally, so his friends here would have a chance to see it (it screened in Denver, but not Vail), and he wanted it to be a fundraiser for the Vail Veterans Program since “one of the themes of the film is the selfless sacrifice of veterans and CIA agents,” he said.

“The movie is about sacrifice – not about war fighting and losing limbs, not about what those veterans have gone through – but sacrifice in what families do for wounded warriors, psychologically wounded warriors,” Carl said.

Cheryl Jensen, the executive director and founder of the Vail Veterans Program, had a chance to screen the film.

“It is a riveting account of an amazing story of his father, and understanding who his father was,” she said. “It’s done very, very well. It’s just captivating.”

Carl has made documentaries on a variety of figures: Franz Kline, Willem De Kooning, Bob Marley and more. But years after his father’s death, he turned the camera inward, on his own family, to illuminate a man who those closest to him didn’t even know. Not really.

“You could be talking to my father about the weather while someone was sawing off his right arm and he wouldn’t so much as flinch,” Carl said. “He had a great capacity to absorb pain. He lived at a lower boiling point than you and me.”

William Colby served as the 10th director of the CIA, between 1973 and 1976. After decades of doing the United States’ dark work, he gave up the CIA’s “family jewels,” details about covert actions from the 1950s through the ’70s, during a series of congressional hearings. Shortly after, he was forced to resign, replaced by George H. W. Bush.

“When he was asked to lie to Congress, he couldn’t do that; he sided with the Constitution and he was thrown out,” Carl said.

In circular fashion, the film begins at the end – of his father’s life, that is. Elusive even in death, William, 76, went on a night-time canoe ride and disappeared. His body was found nine days later in a tributary of the Potomac River. That was 15 years ago.

As the film begins, Carl narrates: “My father was a soldier. He jumped out of airplanes. He lived to serve. People would turn to me and say, ‘You know your dad was a murderer.’ My immediate reaction used to be ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Then I’d find myself thinking, was he? Well, who was he, really?”

Long after the film ends, that’s the question you’re left to ponder.

The film is a morality tale. It’s at once a deep memoir of what it’s like to live with someone so ghost-like, and a historical account of the CIA. It weaves the personal with the political, and more than anything, it’s an inquiry into the secret actions this country is involved in every day.

“This president (Obama), even though he has his hands full right now, every other night, or whatever, he’s approving what’s called a presidential finding,” Carl said. “He signs off on a high-level, high-profile, highly dangerous, covert operation; he’s using that capability probably more than any president since the Kennedy brothers.”

Carl’s father used to tell him “the CIA exists so that the president has an option between lodging a diplomatic protest or sending in the Marines,” he said.

“We’re in like 15 to 18 countries, at least, including the ones we already know about,” Carl said. “It’s a very seductive tool. The problem is it becomes easy to use, and not that accountable. You’re not having to tell the American people anything. And then if anything happens, he can blame the CIA … I wanted to make it so people would understand the sacrifice people are making, not just the one my mother made, and my small family, but also now. People are lifting off tonight. Helicopter blades are whirling. Men and women are out there, thousands of them, so we at least ought to have a discussion. What is this secret war?”

For Howard Stone, the similarities between Vietnam and now are unsettling, to say the least.

“It smacked me upside the head,” Stone said. “I said ‘Whoa, we’re reliving this now, with Iraq, Afghanistan, drones and a lot of current real life events’ … the government doesn’t always tell us everything. It resonates with anyone who is aware of what’s going on in the world today. You see similarities and how history repeats itself. … I think it was done exceptionally well. “

For six years, Carl worked diligently on the film, interviewing some 85 people, 35 of whom are part of the movie, including his now 90-year-old mother, a strong, expressive woman with a rare vantage point. Never-before-seen archival footage is intermingled with interviews with former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director James Schlesinger, as well Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersh and Tim Weiner. The result is an authentic film about a man no one truly knew.

The film opened Sept. 23 in New York City, and has shown around the country. It’s garnered praise from critics, and has been written up in the Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle, and more.

It showed at the Landmark Nuart Theater in L.A. in October. That’s where Howard Stone saw the film, along with his wife and a slew of friends he invited to the screening. Afterwards he hosted a party at his Santa Monica home. People at the party nearly buzzed with energy, lavishing Carl and the film with praise.

“It’s an important story about the history of this country,” Stone said, “and a compelling story about people and their families. And there is something in that film I’ll never forget. It took my breath away.”

This story first appeared in Vail Luxury magazine. Email comments about this story to

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