Loveland Reporter-Herald

Walter Mirisch, Oscar-winning producer, dead at 101


Walter Mirisch, the astute and Oscar winning film producer who oversaw such classics as “Some Like It Hot,” “West Side Story” and “In the Heat of the Night,” has died of natural causes, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said Saturday. He was 101.

Mirisch died on Friday in Los Angeles, according to a statement from the academy’s CEO Bill Kramer and its president Janet Yang.

“Walter was a true visionary, both as a producer and as an industry leader,” they said, noting he had served as academy president and an academy governor for many years. “His passion for filmmaking and the Academy never wavered, and he remained a dear friend and advisor. We send our love and support to his family during this difficult time.”

Mirisch received the best picture Academy Award for 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night,” and the company run by him and his brothers also produced the bestpictur­e Oscar winners “The Apartment” and “West Side Story.”

Born eight years before the first Academy Awards ceremony, he served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1973 to 1977 and received two honorary Oscars, in 1978 and 1983, for his body of work and his humanitari­an efforts.

As a producer, Mirisch aggressive­ly recruited top filmmakers such as Billy Wilder and Norman Jewison, then gave them freedom to craft the movies as they saw fit.

“We offered these filmmakers what they needed,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1983. “Billy could call me up and say, ‘I’d next like to do a picture about so-and-so’ — and that’s all we’d need to know . ... We became, in effect, partners with our directors.”

His company’s regular stable of directors included not only Wilder and Jewison, but Blake Edwards and John Sturges. The company also produced movies by John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, George Roy Hill and Hal Ashby.

Mirisch entered the movie business in his teens, advancing from usher to management jobs with a theater chain before going on to production work on low-budget action flicks and Westerns in the late 1940s.

The company he founded in 1957 with his brother Marvin and half brother Harold was one of the most successful independen­t production outfits to arise from the old studio system as television cut into movie attendance.

The Mirischs made a string of hits from the 1950s to the 1970s, among them “The Magnificen­t Seven,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Great Escape,” “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “The Pink Panther” and its sequel, “A Shot in the Dark.”

Their company started with a handful of Westerns before producing 1959’s “Some Like It Hot,” the Wilder comedy with Marilyn Monroe co-starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as cross-dressing musicians running from the mob.

Mirisch was willing to take on unusual projects.

A Harvard-trained business executive, he efficientl­y oversaw the commerce side of things, allowing his filmmakers to concentrat­e on their movies.

Elmore Leonard — the crime novelist and screenwrit­er on two Mirisch production­s, 1974’s “Mr. Majestyk” and the 1987 TV movie “Desperado” — dedicated his Hollywood satire “Get Shorty” to Mirisch, calling him “one of the good guys.”

Mirisch was also among a handful of filmmakers Sidney Poitier acknowledg­ed in his speech at the 2002 Academy Awards when he accepted an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievemen­t.

“Those filmmakers persevered, speaking through their art to the best in all of us,” said Poitier, who starred in Mirisch’s “In the Heat of the Night” and the sequel “They Call Me Mister Tibbs!”

The Mirisch brothers adjusted their management style film by film, depending on the level of oversight they felt a director wanted or needed. In a 1972 interview in the journal “Films and Filming,” Mirisch said some directors worked well as their own producers, while others showed little interest beyond the actual filmmaking.

“We’ve worked with brilliant directors and producer-directors, and I must say that the relationsh­ip with each of them has been entirely different,” he said.

A team for most of their careers, the Mirisch brothers also worked in theater. Before joining the Allied Artists production company in the 1940s, Walter worked as a producer and later head of production and Harold and Marvin had administra­tive jobs.

While at Allied, Walter produced both Westerns and a series of low-budget titles in the “Bomba the Jungle Boy” series that starred Johnny Sheffield, who had played Boy in the “Tarzan” movies of the 1940s.

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