Walter Mirisch, producer and former head of a motion picture academy, dies

Walter Mirisch, the last of the three Mirisch brothers who produced or supervised the production of a string of critically acclaimed films in the 1950s and ’60s, including the best picture Oscar winners “The Apartment,” “West Side Story” and “In the Heat of the Night,” as well as comedy classics like “Some Like It Hot” and “The Pink Panther,” died. He was 101.

Mirisch, who also had a strong presence in the Hollywood community and was president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1973 to 1977, died Friday in Los Angeles of natural causes according to an academy statement.

For the record:

6:08 pm February 25, 2023An earlier version of this article stated incorrect dates for some of the awards received by Walter Mirisch and his films. “West Side Story” swept the Academy Awards in 1962, not 1961; “In the Heat of the Night” won the Oscar for best picture in 1968, not 1967; and Mirisch received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1982, not 1988.

“The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is deeply saddened to hear of Walter’s passing,” academy CEO Bill Kramer and academy President Janet Yang said in a statement. “Walter was a true visionary, producer and industry leader. He had a powerful influence on the film community and the Academy, serving as our President and Academy governor for many years. His passion for film and the Academy never wavered, and he remained a friend and adviser. We send our love and support to his family during this difficult time.”

In total, films with the stamp of brothers Walter, Harold and Marvin Mirisch received dozens of Oscar nominations. The tiny “studio without walls” as Harold Mirisch called it, grew and contracted as needed and became such a large family operation that the brothers were sometimes called “the Mirii”. They were among the first “independents”.

“I don’t know of a brother team that has done as much for this industry as the Mirisch brothers,” the legendary former producer AC Lyles once said.

Mirisch’s films earned many honors including best director nominations for Billy Wilder (“Some Like It Hot,” “The Apartment”), Robert Wise (“The Sound of Music,” “West Side Story”), Jerome Robbins ( also “West Side Story”) and Norman Jew (“In the Heat of the Night,” “Fiddler on the Roof”). Jewison’s “The Russians Are Coming!,” the first of several films he directed and/or produced with the Mirisches, also received a best picture nomination.

Rita Moreno as Anita i

Rita Moreno as Anita in West Side Story.

(Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

The Mirisches also worked with many other famous directors, including John Ford (“The Horse Soldiers”), John Sturges (“The Magnificent Seven,” “By Love Possessed,” “The Great Escape”), George Roy Hill (“Toys in). the Attic,” “Hawaii”), John Huston (“Davies Sinful”) and Blake Edwards (“The Pink Panther”).

Actors have also been successful in Mirisch’s films, including Rod Steiger, who won a best actor Oscar in 1967 for “In the Heat of the Night,” and George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, who won Academy Awards for supporting roles in the 1961 screen version of Broadway’s “West Side Story.”

Generally, Harold Mirisch was the wheeler dealer with a big Hollywood personality, Marvin was the quieter money man and Walter was more interested in the art of filmmaking.

As C. Robert Jennings wrote of the Mirisches in the Los Angeles Times in 1967, directors loved working with them because the brothers took care of “a wonderful miasma of agents, properties, screen rights, salaries, star minds, contract negotiations , lawsuits, legal clearances, logistics, bills, budgets, ballet, release dates and release cities.”

The Mirisches succeeded because, as Harold Mirisch once said, “There is an atmosphere of creative freedom here.”

Wilder, who made more than half a dozen films with the Mirisches, once called their approach “bafflingly simple.”

“When you go out of the gate, the Mirisches give you full rein, and never use the whip,” Wilder told the Times in 1967. “When you win a race, they let you wear the wreath. And if you break your leg, they don’t fire you – they let you do it yourself.”

Jewison, who made some of his best films with the Mirisches, echoed that idea many years later.

“They left me alone, they left William Wyler alone, they left Billy Wilder alone, they left John Sturges alone,” Jewison said in 2005. He also said , referring to the production notes that are a common joke for Hollywood filmmakers: “You didn’t get many notes” from the Mirisches.

Walter Mirisch personally produced many films, including “The Magnificent Seven,” “Two for the Seesaw,” “Toys in the Attic,” “Hawaii,” “The Hawaiians,” Midway,” “Same Time, Next Year” and “Romantic Comedy.” But Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night” is one of the films he is most credited with producing.

Based on the novel by John Ball with an Oscar-winning screenplay by Stirling Siliphant, the film stars Sidney Poitier as a Philadelphia lawyer who helps a big Southern sheriff (Steiger) solve a murder in a small Mississippi town.

“It was very difficult to do that,” Mirisch told the Times in 2004, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had a museum of Mirisch’s films that included “In the Heat of the Night.” “People don’t really realize that it was done right smack in the middle of the civil rights revolution.” Some of the film’s financiers were concerned that the film might start riots in the South, but Walter Mirisch refused to warn him.

“I said if he doesn’t play in the South, he doesn’t play in the South,” he said. “What he has to say is so important that the picture needs to be seen, and there are many places in this country where people will see it and want to see it.”

In a concession to Poitier’s concerns about his safety in the Deep South, however, all but a handful of “Heat’s” scenes were filmed on location in Sparta, Ill., instead of Mississippi.

But far from being a palm, “In the Heat of the Night” is a human and strangely funny story about two men forced to face each other and their own prejudices in the service of justice.

“What I liked was the relationship between these two guys from opposite ends of the spectrum,” Mirisch said. He said that making that film was one of the highlights of his career.

Sidney Poitier, left, and Rod Steiger in the 1967 film

Sidney Poitier as Police Det. Virgil Tibbs, left, and Rod Steiger as Police Chief Bill Gillespie in the 1967 film “In the Heat of the Night.”

(John Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

Mirisch was born on November 8, 1921, in New York City and was the first of his siblings to make it to Hollywood. The son of a tailor, he worked his way through school as an usher in various theaters, attending the City College of New York and earning degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration before moving to the West Coast. His half-brother, Harold, who was already working in the film industry at the distribution of Warner Bros. in New York, he contacted producers at Hollywood studios.

“I loved movies, and I loved the idea of ​​creating them and translating a person’s dream into a movie,” Mirisch told the Times in 2005.

Beginning in the 1940s, Walter Mirisch produced B movies for Monogram Pictures, including the “Bomba the Jungle Boy” film series. Harold soon joined Monogram, and several years later, Marvin.

When Monogram became Allied Pictures, the Mirisches moved on to A pictures, helping to produce William Wyler’s “Friendly Persuasion” (1956), starring Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire as parents in a Quaker family during the Civil War. and “Love in” by Wilder. the Afternoon” (1957), a romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn and Cooper as May-December lovers.

But neither film was a big enough moneymaker for Allied Artists. In 1957, as the studio system declined, the three brothers struck out on their own to produce or “package” their type of film without the pressure of protecting profits.

Instead of putting the stars under contract like the studios did, however, the Mirisches made deals with filmmakers, providing them with a home to do their work. The Mirisch Co. kept low overhead as there were no expensive studio lots to maintain. It was located in Samuel Goldwyn’s lot, and the brothers got what they needed to make a movie for rent. United Artists distributed their films.

Mirisch Co.’s initial productions were (later the Mirisch Corp.) the Joseph Newman film, “Fort Massacre” (1958), about a beleaguered cavalry commander who leads a patrol through Apache territory, and the 1959-60 NBC television series “Wichita Town.” Both starred Joel McCrea.

Soon the Mirisches were heavily involved in films such as “The Magnificent Seven,” “Cast a Long Shadow” and “By Love Possessed.” When “West Side Story” became the first film adaptation of the Broadway musical that won the Academy Award for best picture and swept the Oscars in 1962 with a total of 10 awards, the Mirisches were firmly established as a major creative force in film. industry.

A few years after Harold’s death in 1968, Walter and Marvin Mirisch moved to Universal Pictures, where they produced Jack Smight’s “Midway” in 1976 and Robert Mulligan’s “Same Time, Next Year” in 1978, among other films.

Marvin Mirisch died in 2002 at the age of 84.

Walter Mirisch was the first person to receive the three highest honors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: Oscar for best picture in 1968 as producer of “In the Heat of the Night”; the 1977 Irving G. Thalberg award, given to a producer, and, in 1982, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. He was an academy governor for 15 years.

Mirisch also served as president of the Center Theater Group, which includes the Taper and the Ahmanson in downtown Los Angeles and the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City.

Mirisch is survived by his children Anne, Andrew and Lawrence Mirisch; her granddaughter and her husband, Megan and Craig Bloom; and his grandchildren Emery and Levi Bloom. His wife of 57 years, Patricia, died in 2005.

Luther is a former Times staff writer.

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