Walter Mirisch obituary | Film

Walter Mirisch, who has died aged 101, was one of the few film producers of the post-Hollywood studio era who had the intuition and the know-how of the old moguls of the 1930s and 40s, combined with the daring and confidence to entrust the movies to the artists themselves.

This resulted in a string of films that gained the approbation of mass audiences and critics alike in the decade following the foundation of the Mirisch Corporation (also known variously as Mirisch Production Company and Mirisch Films), the company set up in 1957 by Walter, his brother Marvin and his half-brother Harold.

The company quickly gained a reputation for careful budgeting, quality of production and the complete creative autonomy it gave to film-makers, who included Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment), John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape), John Ford (The Horse Soldiers), Blake Edwards (The Pink Panther), Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair) and Robert Wise (West Side Story). Films under the Mirisch Corporation banner accrued 87 Academy Award nominations and 28 Oscars in all.

Walter Mirisch in Hollywood in 2009.Pin
Walter Mirisch in Hollywood in 2009. Photograph: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

Walter’s father, Max, who was born in Kraków, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, emigrated to the US in 1891 as a teenager. He eventually became a tailor in New York, where his children were born. Walter and Marvin were the sons of his second marriage, to Josephine Urbach. Although the family was hit hard by the Depression, Walter managed to take a history degree at University of Wisconsin, then study at Harvard Business School.

He began his connection with the film business aged 17 as a management trainee at one of the chain of Skouras motion picture theatres. This meant acting as an usher most of the time, but it did give him the chance to watch movies, among them Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), both exemplars of the high quality at which he would later aim.

After the second world war, Harold, who was chief film buyer for RKO theatres, put his younger brother in touch with Steve Broidy, general manager of Monogram Pictures, the Poverty Row studio. As producer, Mirisch did his best to lift the standards at Monogram, later renamed Allied Artists, but he was only biding his time.

Nevertheless, during his 12 years in the minor league, he learned many aspects of film-making on an efficient B-picture level. Among the dozens of Monogram pictures under his watch were a series of 12 profitable quickie movies starring Johnny Sheffield, formerly Tarzan’s Boy, Starting with Bomba, the Jungle Boy (1949) and ending with Lord of the Jungle (1955), in which the muscular adolescent hero invariably did battle with some wild animal and villain.

On a much higher level were the six westerns Mirisch produced for Allied Artists starring a slightly over-the-hill Joel McCrea. These included Wichita (1955) and The First Texan (1956), in which McCrea played Wyatt Earp and Sam Houston respectively. Everything changed when the Mirisch Corporation started to release through United Artists.

Jack Lemmon, left and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot, 1959, a breakthrough hit for the Mirisch Corporation.Pin
Jack Lemmon, left and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot, 1959, a breakthrough hit for the Mirisch Corporation. Photograph: Cinetext/United Artists/Allstar

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. UA’s relative economic stability allowed Mirisch, as head of production, greater flexibility on the production side. The company and the producers came to a decision on the story, the cast, the director and the budget together, after which the producer was given complete freedom to make the picture. Since the producers also owned a share in their movies’ profits, they sometimes appointed their own sales representatives to help the distribution.

“To me, good taste means good taste in terms of writing, directing, acting, scoring, editing, and all the other phases of the picture business,” said Mirisch, who saw the producer’s role as helping the collaborative process to work smoothly.

The Mirisch Corporation, hoping to become pre-eminent as the quality independent film-maker, launched Fort Massacre (1958) as its first production. Although a solid rugged western of merit, shot in CinemaScope and De Luxe Color, with McCrea at his reliable best, it did not quite fulfil their hopes. The breakthrough came with Some Like It Hot (1959), which was one of UA’s biggest hits. They hit the jackpot again with The Magnificent Seven (1960), which earned a magnificent $7m and West Side Story (1961), which grossed $11m.

In 1963, a stock transfer gave ownership of the Mirisch Company to UA, though their modus operandi changed little. Whereas the major studios were still burdened by high overheads and salaries, Mirisch was in a position to offer high fees and almost full control to directors such as the Canadian Jewison, who responded with three hits in a row for them – The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967), for which Mirisch received the Oscar for best picture, and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). For Ford’s The Horse Soldiers (1959), the Mirisch Company paid both William Holden and John Wayne $750,000, plus 20% of the profits.

Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968, one of three hits in a row from Norman Jewison for Mirisch, who was in a position to offer high fees and almost full control to directors.Pin
Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968, one of three hits in a row from Norman Jewison for Mirisch, who was in a position to offer high fees and almost full control to directors. Photograph: Cinetext/United Artists/Allstar

In his 2008 memoir, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History, Mirisch related some revealing anecdotes about some of the directors and stars he worked with. Among the few film-makers with whom he fell out was John Huston.

First of all, Mirisch vetoed the director’s desire to use his daughter Anjelica as his leading lady opposite John Hurt in the film Sinful Davey (1969). Then, after initial previews were disastrous, the film was recut against Huston’s will. Despite, or because of, the re-editing, overseen by Mirisch, Sinful Davey remains one of the company’s and Huston’s biggest flops. Mirisch also remembered, without malice, his problems with Peter Sellers on the Pink Panther films, and the production difficulties on Hawaii (1966), which never earned back the $15m spent on it, though it gained seven Academy Award nominations.

The Mirisch touch tended to be less assured in the 70s, though there were hits such as Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Battle of Midway (1976) and Dracula (1979). In the 1980s, the company moved almost exclusively into television. Among the TV series on which Mirisch was executive producer was a spinoff from one of his greatest past successes, The Magnificent Seven (1998-2000) and in 2016, he executive produced the film remake.

In 1977, Mirisch, who served four terms as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and three terms as president of the Producers Guild of America, received the academy’s Irving G Thalberg memorial award, and, in 1982, its Jean Hersholt humanitarian award.

He is survived by a daughter, Anne, and two sons, Andrew and Lawrence, from his marriage to Patricia Kahan, whom he married in 1947, and who died in 2005, and by a granddaughter and two great-grandchildren.

Walter Mortimer Mirisch, film producer, born 8 November 1921; died 24 February 2023

Ronald Bergan died in 2020

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