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In Appreciation: Morgan Spurlock

Morgan Spurlock, a documentary filmmaker who gained fame with his Oscar-nominated 2004 film “Super Size Me,” which followed him as he ate nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days — but later stepped back from the public eye after admitting to sexual misconduct — died on Thursday in New York City. He was 53.

His brother Craig Spurlock said the cause was complications of cancer.

A self-described attention hound with a keen eye for the absurd, Mr. Spurlock was a playwright and television producer when he rocketed to global attention with “Super Size Me,” an early entry into the genre of gonzo participatory filmmaking that borrowed heavily from the confrontational style of Michael Moore and the up-close-and-personal influences of reality TV, which was then just emerging as a genre.

The film’s approach was straightforward: Mr. Spurlock would eat nothing but McDonald’s food for a month, and if a server at the restaurant offered to “supersize” the meal — that is, to give him the largest portion available for each item — he would accept.

The movie then follows Mr. Spurlock and his ever-patient girlfriend through his 30-day odyssey, splicing in interviews with health experts and visits to his increasingly disturbed physician. At the end of the month, he was 25 pounds heavier, depressed, puffy-faced and experiencing liver dysfunction.

The film, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, grossed over $22 million, made Mr. Spurlock a household name, earned him an Academy Award nomination for best documentary and helped spur a sweeping backlash against the fast-food industry — though only temporarily; today, McDonald’s has 42,000 locations worldwide, its stock is near an all-time high, and 36 percent of Americans eat fast food on any given day.

“Super Size Me” grossed over $22 million, made Mr. Spurlock a household name and helped spur a sweeping backlash against the fast-food industry.

“His movie,” the critic A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times, “goes down easy and takes a while to digest, but its message is certainly worth the loss of your appetite.”

The film became a touchstone in American culture. By making himself a part of the story, Mr. Spurlock could be considered a forerunner of TikTok influencers and citizen-journalist YouTubers.

And even after the backlash against fast food subsided, “Super Size Me” remained a staple in high school health classes and a reference point for taking personal responsibility for one’s own diet.

But the film also came in for subsequent criticism. Some people pointed out that Mr. Spurlock refused to release the daily logs tracking his food intake. Health researchers were unable to replicate his results in controlled studies.

And in 2017, he admitted that he had not been sober for more than a week at a time in 30 years — meaning that, in addition to his “McDonald’s only” diet, he was drinking, a fact that he concealed from his doctors and the audience, and that most likely skewed his results.

The admission came in a statement in which he also revealed multiple incidents of sexual misconduct, including an encounter in college that he described as rape, as well as repeated infidelity and the sexual harassment of an assistant at his production company, Warrior Poets.

The statement, which Mr. Spurlock posted on Twitter in 2017, came as he was gearing up for the release of a sequel to the film, “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!” on YouTube Red.

He stepped down from his production company, and YouTube dropped the film; it was instead released in 2019 by Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Morgan Valentine Spurlock was born on Nov. 7, 1970, in Parkersburg, W.Va., and grew up in Beckley, W.Va. His father, Ben, owned and operated an auto-repair shop, and his mother, Phyllis (Valentine) Spurlock, was a junior high school and high school guidance counselor.

He later said he grew up as a fan of 1970s and ’80s British comedies like “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “Blackadder.”

“I was doing funny walks round the house at 6 or 7,” he told The Independent in 2012.

He studied film at New York University and received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1993, then began his career as a production assistant on film projects around New York City, beginning with Luc Besson’s “Léon: The Professional” (1994).

He also began writing plays, including “The Phoenix,” which won an award at the 1999 New York International Fringe Festival.

Mr. Spurlock’s first foray onto the screen was a proto-reality show called “I Bet You Will,” which was also one of the first web-only programs. In five-minute segments, he would dare people to do something gross, or humiliating, or both — eating a “worm burrito,” for example — in exchange for a wad of cash.

The show drew millions of viewers, as well as the interest of MTV, which bought the program a few months after it debuted.

During a Thanksgiving visit to his parents in 2002, Mr. Spurlock saw a TV news story about two women who had sued McDonald’s, claiming that the chain had misled them about the nutritional value of its hamburgers, fries and sodas and caused them to gain significant weight.

“A spokesman for McDonald’s came on and said, you can’t link their obesity to our food — our food is healthy, it’s nutritious,” he told The New York Times in 2004. “I thought, ‘If it’s so good for me, I should be able to eat it every day, right?’”

And thus, “Super Size Me” was born.

Mr. Spurlock took to fame eagerly, and, with his wide smile and handlebar mustache, was hard to miss. He became an unofficial spokesman for the wellness movement, hobnobbed with celebrity chefs — and scrambled to find a new project.

He did not want to lose the momentum generated by “Super Size Me,” nor did he want to go down in history only as the guy who ate a lot of Big Macs.

“I’ll be that guy till I die,” he told The Independent.

A follow-up film, “Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?” (2008), was not nearly as well received. Critics assailed him for making light of an international terrorist and for oversimplifying complicated global politics. More bricks were thrown when it emerged that he had put himself at significant personal risk while in Pakistan while his wife was at home with their newborn son.

Eventually, he did get somewhat past the shadow of “Super Size Me”: He teamed up with the actors Jason Bateman and Will Arnett to explore the male grooming industry in “Mansome” (2012) and followed the band One Direction around, resulting in the film “One Direction: This Is Us” (2013).

He produced films by other documentarians, including “The Other F Word” (2011), directed by Andrea Blaugrund Nevins, about punk rockers who became fathers, and “A Brony Tale” (2014), directed by Brent Hodge, about the subculture known as Bronies — adults, mostly men, who love the animated series “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.”

And he continued to make projects that leaned on the participatory style of “Super Size Me.” He created and starred in a series called “30 Days” for FX, in which a person, often Mr. Spurlock himself, would spend about a month embedded in a community much different from his own. One episode saw him spend 25 days in a Virginia jail.

Mr. Spurlock was married three times, to Priscilla Sommer, Alexandra Jamieson and Sara Bernstein; all three marriages ended in divorce. Along with his brother Craig, he is survived by another brother, Barry; his parents; and his sons, Laken and Kallen.

His decision to discuss his sexual past, which came at the height of the #Metoo movement, was met with a mix of praise and criticism. Though many people lauded him for coming forward, critics suggested that he was trying to get ahead of a story that was going to emerge anyway.

All agreed, though, that the decision came with consequences: “Career death,” The Washington Post declared it in 2022, noting that the once-ubiquitous Mr. Spurlock had largely disappeared.