Morris was born on February 5, 1948, and raised in a Jewish family in Hewlett, New York.
After being treated for strabismus in childhood, he refused to wear an eye patch. As a consequence, he has limited sight in one eye and lacks normal stereoscopic vision.
In the 10th grade, Morris attended The Putney School, a boarding school in Vermont. He began playing the cello, spending a summer in France studying music under the acclaimed Nadia Boulanger, who also taught Morris's future collaborator Philip Glass. Describing Morris as a teenager, Mark Singer wrote that he "read with a passion the forty-odd Oz books, watched a lot of television, and on a regular basis went with a doting but not quite right maiden aunt ('I guess you'd have to say that Aunt Roz was somewhat demented') to Saturday matinées, where he saw such films as This Island Earth and Creature from the Black Lagoon — horror movies that, viewed again 30 years later, still seem scary to him."
Morris attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Morris graduated in 1969 with a B.A. in history. For a brief time Morris held small jobs, first as a cable television salesman and then as a term-paper writer. His unorthodox approach to applying for grad school included "trying to get accepted at different graduate schools just by showing up on their doorstep." Having unsuccessfully approached both the University of Oxford and Harvard University, Morris was able to talk his way into Princeton University, where he began studying the history of science, a topic in which he had "absolutely no background." His concentration was in the history of physics, and he was bored and unsuccessful in the prerequisite physics classes he had to take. This, together with his antagonistic relationship with his advisor Thomas Kuhn ('You won't even look through my telescope.' And his response was 'Errol, it's not a telescope, it's a kaleidoscope.') ensured that his stay at Princeton would be short.
Morris left Princeton in 1972, enrolling at Berkeley as a Ph.D. student in philosophy. At Berkeley, he once again found that he was not well-suited to his subject. "Berkeley was just a world of pedants. It was truly shocking. I spent two or three years in the philosophy program. I have very bad feelings about it," he later said. He became a regular at the Pacific Film Archive. As Tom Luddy, the director of the archive at the time, later remembered: "He was a film noir nut. He claimed we weren't showing the real film noir. So I challenged him to write the program notes. Then, there was his habit of sneaking into the films and denying that he was sneaking in. I told him if he was sneaking in he should at least admit he was doing it."
Inspired by Hitchcock's Psycho, Morris visited Plainfield, Wisconsin in 1975. While in Wisconsin, he conducted multiple interviews with Ed Gein, the infamous serial killer who resided at Mendota State Hospital in Madison. He later made plans with German film director Werner Herzog, whom Tom Luddy had introduced to Morris, to return in the summer of 1975 to secretly open the grave of Gein's mother to test their theory that Gein himself had already dug her up. Herzog arrived on schedule, but Morris had second thoughts and was not there. Herzog did not open the grave. Morris later returned to Plainfield, this time staying for almost a year, conducting hundreds of hours of interviews. Although he had plans to either write a book or make a film (which he would call Digging up the Past), Morris never completed his Ed Gein project.
In the fall of 1976, Herzog visited Plainfield again, this time to shoot part of his film Stroszek. After the shooting finished, Herzog handed Morris an envelope with cash in it. Morris walked over to the motel window and tossed the envelope, containing about $2,000, out the window into a parking lot. Herzog went out to the parking lot and brought the money back, again offering it to Morris, saying, "Please don't do that again."
Morris accepted the $2,000 from Herzog and used it to take a trip to Vernon, Florida. Vernon was nicknamed "Nub City" because its residents participated in a particularly gruesome form of insurance fraud in which they deliberately amputated a limb in order to collect the insurance money. Morris's second documentary would be about the town and bear its name, although it makes no mention of Vernon as "Nub City", but instead explores other idiosyncrasies of the town's residents. Morris made this omission because he received death threats while doing research; the town's residents were afraid that Morris would reveal their secret.
After spending two weeks in Vernon, Morris returned to Berkeley and began working on a script for a work of fiction that he called Nub City. After a few unproductive months, he happened to read a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle that read, "450 DEAD PETS GOING TO NAPA VALLEY". Morris left for Napa Valley and began working on the film that would become his first feature, Gates of Heaven. In 1978, when the film premiered, Werner Herzog cooked and publicly ate his shoe, an event later incorporated into a short documentary by Les Blank. Herzog had promised to eat his shoe if Morris completed the project, to challenge and encourage Morris, whom Herzog perceived as incapable of following up on the projects he conceived. At the public shoe-eating, Herzog suggested that he hoped the act would serve to encourage anyone having difficulty bringing a project to fruition.
Gates of Heaven was given a limited release in the spring of 1981. Critic Roger Ebert was and remained a champion of the film, including it on his all-time top ten best films list. Morris returned to Vernon in 1979 and again in 1980, renting a house in town and conducting interviews with the town's citizens. Vernon, Florida premiered at the 1981 New York Film Festival. Newsweek called it, "a film as odd and mysterious as its subjects, and quite unforgettable." The film, like Gates of Heaven, suffered from poor distribution. It was released on video in 1987, and DVD in 2005.
After finishing Vernon, Florida, Morris tried unsuccessfully to get funding for a variety of projects. There was Road, a story about an interstate highway in Minnesota; a project about Robert Golka, the creator of laser-induced fireballs in Utah; and the story of Centralia, Pennsylvania, the coal town in which an inextinguishable subterranean fire ignited in 1962. He eventually got funding in 1983 to write a script about John and Jim Pardue, a pair of Missouri bank robbers who had killed their father and grandmother and robbed five banks. Morris's pitch went, "The great bank-robbery sprees always take place at a time when something is going wrong in the country. Bonnie and Clyde were apolitical, but it's impossible to imagine them without the Depression as a back-drop. The Pardue brothers were apolitical, but it's impossible to imagine them without Vietnam." Morris wanted Tom Waits and Mickey Rourke to play the brothers, and he wrote the script, but the project eventually failed. Morris worked on writing scripts for various other projects, including a pair of ill-fated Stephen King adaptations.
In 1984, Morris married Julia Sheehan, whom he had met in Wisconsin while researching Ed Gein and other serial killers. He would later recall an early conversation with Julia: "I was talking to a mass murderer but I was thinking of you," he said, and instantly regretted it, afraid that it might not have sounded as affectionate as he had wished. But Julia was actually flattered: "I thought, really, that was one of the nicest things anyone ever said to me. It was hard to go out with other guys after that."
In 1985, Morris became interested in Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist in Dallas. Under Texas law, the death penalty can only be issued if the jury is convinced that the defendant is not only guilty, but will commit further violent crimes in the future if he is not put to death. Grigson had spent 15 years testifying for such cases, and he almost invariably gave the same damning testimony, often saying that it is "one hundred per cent certain" that the defendant would kill again. This led to Grigson being nicknamed "Dr. Death". Through Grigson, Morris would meet the subject of his next film, 36-year-old Randall Dale Adams.
Adams was serving a life sentence that had been commuted from a death sentence on a legal technicality for the 1976 murder of Robert Wood, a Dallas police officer. Adams told Morris that he had been framed, and that David Harris, who was present at the time of the murder and was the principal witness for the prosecution, had in fact killed Wood. Morris began researching the case because it related to Dr. Grigson. He was at first unconvinced of Adams's innocence. After reading the transcripts of the trial and meeting David Harris at a bar, however, Morris was no longer so sure.
At the time, Morris had been making a living as a private investigator for a well-known private detective agency that specialized in Wall Street cases. Bringing together his talents as an investigator and his obsessions with murder, narration, and epistemology, Morris went to work on the case in earnest. Unedited interviews in which the prosecution's witnesses systematically contradicted themselves were used as testimony in Adams's 1986 habeas corpus hearing to determine if he would receive a new trial. David Harris famously confessed, in a roundabout manner, to killing Wood.
Although Adams was finally found innocent after years of being processed by the legal system, the judge in the habeas corpus hearing officially stated that, "much could be said about those videotape interviews, but nothing that would have any bearing on the matter before this court." Regardless, The Thin Blue Line, as Morris's film would be called, was popularly accepted as the main force behind getting its subject, Randall Adams, out of prison. As Morris said of the film, "The Thin Blue Line is two movies grafted together. On one simple level is the question, Did he do it, or didn't he? And on another level, The Thin Blue Line, properly considered, is an essay on false history. A whole group of people, literally everyone, believed a version of the world that was entirely wrong, and my accidental investigation of the story provided a different version of what happened."
The Thin Blue Line ranks among the most critically acclaimed documentaries ever made. According to a survey by The Washington Post, the film made dozens of critics' top ten lists for 1988, more than any other film that year. It won the documentary of the year award from both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. Despite its widespread acclaim, it was not nominated for an Oscar, which created a small scandal regarding the nomination practices of the Academy. The Academy cited the film's genre of "non-fiction", arguing that it was not actually a documentary.
Although Morris has achieved fame as a documentary filmmaker, he is also an accomplished director of television commercials. In 2002, Morris directed a series of television ads for Apple Computer as part of a popular "Switch" campaign. The commercials featured ex-Windows users discussing their various bad experiences that motivated their own personal switches to Macintosh. One commercial in the series, starring Ellen Feiss, a high-schooler friend of his son Hamilton Morris, became an Internet meme. Morris has directed hundreds of commercials for various companies and products, including Adidas, AIG, Cisco Systems, Citibank, Kimberly-Clark's Depend brand, Levi's, Miller High Life, Nike, PBS, The Quaker Oats Company, Southern Comfort, EA Sports, Toyota and Volkswagen. Many of these commercials are available on his website.
In 2002, Morris was commissioned to make a short film for the 75th Academy Awards. He was hired based on his advertising resume, not his career as a director of feature-length documentaries. Those interviewed ranged from Laura Bush to Iggy Pop to Kenneth Arrow to Morris's 15-year-old son Hamilton. Morris was nominated for an Emmy for this short film. He considered editing this footage into a feature-length film, focusing on Donald Trump discussing Citizen Kane (this segment was later released on the second issue of Wholphin). Morris went on to make a second short for the 79th Academy Awards in 2007, this time interviewing the various nominees and asking them about their Oscar experiences.
In 2003, Morris won the Oscar for Best Documentary for The Fog of War, a film about the career of Robert S. McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. In the hauntingly re-enacted opening about McNamara relationship with U.S. General Curtis LeMay during World War II, Morris brings out complexities in the character of McNamara, which shaped McNamara's positions in the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam War. Like his earlier documentary, The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War included extensive use of re-enactments, a technique which many had believed was inappropriate for documentaries.
In July 2004, Morris directed another series of commercials in the style of the "Switch" ads. This campaign featured Republicans who voted for Bush in the 2000 election giving their personal reasons for voting for Kerry in 2004. Upon completing more than 50 commercials, Morris had difficulty getting them on the air. Eventually, the liberal advocacy group MoveOn PAC paid to air a few of the commercials. Morris also wrote an editorial for The New York Times discussing the commercials and Kerry's losing campaign.
In late 2004, Morris directed a series of noteworthy commercials for Sharp Electronics. The commercials enigmatically depicted various scenes from what appeared to be a short narrative that climaxed with a car crashing into a swimming pool. Each commercial showed a slightly different perspective on the events, and each ended with a cryptic weblink. The weblink was to a fake webpage advertising a prize offered to anyone who could discover the secret location of some valuable urns. It was in fact an alternate reality game. The original commercials can be found on Morris's website.
Morris directed a series of commercials for Reebok that featured six prominent National Football League (NFL) players. The 30-second promotional videos were aired during the 2006 NFL season.
In 2013, Morris stated that he has made around 1,000 commercials during his career.
In early 2010, a new Morris documentary was submitted to several film festivals, including Toronto International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, and Telluride Film Festival. The film, titled Tabloid, features interviews with Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming, who was convicted in absentia for the kidnap and indecent assault of a Mormon missionary in England during 1977.
Morris has also written long-form journalism, exploring different areas of interest and published on The New York Times website. A collection of these essays, entitled Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, was published by Penguin Press on September 1, 2011. In November 2011, Morris premiered a documentary short entitled "The Umbrella Man"—featuring Josiah "Tink" Thompson—about the Kennedy assassination on The New York Times website.
In 2012, Morris published his second book, A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, about Jeffrey MacDonald, the Green Beret physician convicted of killing his wife and two daughters on February 17, 1970. Morris first became interested in the case in the early 1990s and believes that MacDonald is not guilty after undertaking extensive research. Morris explained in a July 2013 interview, prior to the reopening of the case: "What happened here is wrong. It's wrong to convict a man under these circumstances. And if I can help correct that, I will be a happy camper."
To conduct interviews, Morris invented a machine, called the Interrotron, which allows Morris and his subject to talk to each other through the camera lens itself. He explains the device as follows:
Teleprompters are used to project an image on a two-way mirror. Politicians and newscasters use them so that they can read text and look into the lens of the camera at the same time. What interests me is that nobody thought of using them for anything other than to display text: read a speech or read the news and look into the lens of the camera. I changed that. I put my face on the Teleprompter or, strictly speaking, my live video image. For the first time, I could be talking to someone, and they could be talking to me and at the same time looking directly into the lens of the camera. Now, there was no looking off slightly to the side. No more faux first person. This was the true first person.
In the "aesthetic context" sense of Erik Barnouw's Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, Morris is a multiple stylist. His "Prosecutor"-style Thin Blue Line influenced legal process and led to Randall Adams's release. He utilizes the "Chronicler" style for big events and the "Observer" style for given-moment events. He is best known for the "Catalyst" style that is seen as direct, natural, and cinematically truthful, as no directorial voice-over or "voice" is heard among the voices of others.
Morris is also a large advocate of the reflexive style of documentary film making. In Bill Nichols's book Introduction to Documentary he states that reflexive documentary "[speaks] not only about the historical world but about the problems and issues of representing it as well". Morris uses not only his films to portray social issues and non-fiction events, but also to comment on the reliability of documentary making itself.Survivors (2008)
They Were There (Documentary short) (2011)
El Wingador (Documentary short) (2012)
Three Short Films About Peace (2014)
Leymah Gbowee: The Dream (Documentary short) (2014)
Errol Morris Interrotron Stories: Digging Up the Past (TV miniseries documentary) (1995)
First Person (TV series documentary) (6 episodes) (2000)
Op-Docs (TV series documentary trilogy)
The Umbrella Man about Umbrella Man (JFK assassination) (2011)
November 22, 1963 (2013)
A Demon in the Freezer (2016)
P.O.V. (executive producer) (2014–2016)
Wormwood (miniseries) (2017)
Middlebury College, Hon. D.F.A. (2010)
Brandeis University, Hon. D.H.L. (2011)
University of Wisconsin-Madison, Hon. D.H.L. (2013)