Walter Mirisch, Oscar-winning producer from a bygone era, dies at 101

Walter Mirisch, an Oscar-winning producer who partnered with two of his brothers to launch one of Hollywood’s most storied production companies, working closely with actors and filmmakers to bring mid-century classics like “Some Like It Hot,” “West Side Story” and “In the Heat of the Night” to the screen, died Feb. 24 in Los Angeles. He was 101.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which he once led as president, announced his death but did not cite a cause.

Mr. Mirisch, a slender, low-key producer with thick horn-rimmed glasses, demonstrated eclectic taste and shrewd judgment across a more than six-decade career, keeping expenses low while backing projects that often turned out to be winners.

Unlike predecessors such as David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn, he seemed to have little interest in placing his own personal stamp on a film; unlike contemporaries such as Robert Evans, he largely shunned the limelight, saying little even in interviews with newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, which once described him as “a man without anecdotes.”

Instead, he cultivated relationships with leading filmmakers — including John Huston, Norman Jewison, Billy Wilder and William Wyler — while seeking to bring their cinematic visions to life, within the constraints of time and budget. The results helped make the Mirisch Co., which he co-founded in 1957 with his older brothers Harold and Marvin, one of the preeminent independent production companies of its time.

The company was responsible for three Oscar winners for best picture: “The Apartment” (1960), Wilder’s poignant romantic comedy about work and adultery; “West Side Story” (1961), Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s adaptation of the hit Broadway musical; and “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), a landmark crime drama that earned Mr. Mirisch his only competitive Oscar as a producer.

“He saw himself as a facilitator, somebody who supported the talents that were there, and brought them together, to make a widely pleasing movie for a mass audience — because that’s what the business was about in his day,” said film historian Jeanine Basinger, who served with Mr. Mirisch as a trustee at the American Film Institute.

Mr. Mirisch, she added in a phone interview, “represented the best of the working producer of his era,” laboring without the backing of the studio system “to get the movie done to the best of everybody’s cooperative abilities.”

Mr. Mirisch’s self-described “love affair” with film began when he was a teenager in the 1930s, commuting from the Bronx to Jersey City to work at a movie theater. His father’s tailoring business was falling apart, ravaged by the Depression, and movies represented “a wonderful escape from the realities of life,” an opportunity to imagine another world, or another life, while dressed in an usher’s uniform of wing collars and white gloves.

By his mid-20s he was working at Hollywood’s “Poverty Row,” helping to make low-budget “B” movies — and slightly more upscale “B-plus” films — at Monogram Pictures. He became “consumed,” he said, by showing that he could be as good a producer as anybody, and worked on films including “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) before co-founding his family’s namesake production company. Harold served as president, Marvin negotiated business deals and Mr. Mirisch oversaw the production side, working on dozens of movies even when he wasn’t personally credited as a producer.

The company found early success through its partnership with Wilder, who relished the artistic independence Mr. Mirisch granted for films including “The Apartment” and “Irma la Douce” (1963), which both starred Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.

“All the Mirisch Company asks me is the name of the picture, a vague outline of the story and who’s going to be in it. The rest is up to me,” the filmmaker said, according to Tom Wood’s 1969 book “The Bright Side of Billy Wilder, Primarily.” “You can’t get any more freedom than that.”

Mr. Mirisch worked on such popular fare as the all-star western “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), the prisoner-of-war story “The Great Escape” (1963) and the slapstick comedy “The Pink Panther” (1963), later saying that no actor was so difficult to work with as the film’s star, Peter Sellers. He also forged a long relationship with Jewison, with whom he collaborated on movies including “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968), “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971) and “In the Heat of the Night,” one of the first Hollywood films to feature a Black law-enforcement hero.

The movie starred Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, a Black police detective from Philadelphia who reluctantly helps a bigoted White police chief (Rod Steiger) solve a murder in Mississippi. The film was released after a “long, hot summer” of race riots in Newark and Detroit and shocked moviegoers with a scene in which Poitier’s character is slapped across the cheek by a racist White businessman, and quickly responds in kind.

In a memoir, “The Measure of a Man” (2000), Poitier said that his character was originally supposed to leave the room after being hit in the face, without fighting back. By his account, the scene was changed only after he spoke with Jewison and Mr. Mirisch: “I said, ‘You want a moment, you want a really wonderful, impressive moment on the screen?’ I said, ‘Shoot this scene so that without a nanosecond of hesitation, I whack him right back across the face with a backhand slap.’

“Walter said, ‘I like it.’ ”

Shot for just over $2 million, “In the Heat of the Night” grossed about $16 million on its initial run and received five Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Steiger and Best Picture for Mr. Mirisch. He later received two honorary Oscars, for lifetime achievement in 1978 and humanitarian contributions in 1983.

By then, Mr. Mirisch had served four terms as president of the Academy, from 1973 to 1977, leading initiatives that included moving the organization into a roomy new headquarters in Beverly Hills. He also held leadership roles with Los Angeles groups, including the Producers Guild of America, the downtown Music Center and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

For all the acclaim he received from his peers, Mr. Mirisch had few illusions about his standing in the Hollywood hierarchy. When he accepted the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1983, he kept his remarks short — “This industry has been exceedingly good to me. It has allowed me to realize my deepest dreams” — later explaining that he didn’t want to distract from the night’s main event.

“The audience really does want to see movie stars,” he said.

Walter Mortimer Mirisch was born in Manhattan on Nov. 8, 1921, and grew up in the Bronx. His father, Max, was a Jewish immigrant from what is now Krakow, Poland. He started a custom tailoring business in Harlem, and after his first wife died of cancer — leaving him a widower with two sons, Irving and Harold — he married Josephine Urbach, the daughter of immigrants from Krakow and Hungary. They had two more sons, Marvin and Walter.

In a memoir, “I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History” (2008), Mr. Mirisch said that his father suffered “an emotional breakdown” while trying to keep his business afloat. Max gave up the tailoring firm and moved the family to Milwaukee. Mr. Mirisch, then a student at City College of New York, left to join them, and went on to study history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1942.

He graduated from Harvard Business School the next year and moved to Burbank, Calif., where he worked as a manufacturing engineer at a Lockheed plant during World War II. He soon joined Monogram Pictures with help from his well-connected brother Harold, who had dropped out of high school years earlier, joined Warner Bros. as an “office boy” and worked his way up to becoming a film buyer for RKO.

By 29, Mr. Mirisch was head of production at Monogram, which became known as Allied Artists and for a time employed his brothers Harold and Marvin. The company ventured into more expensive, higher-quality pictures for a time and, when it decided to return to its Poverty Row roots, the Mirisch siblings quit to start their own business, signing a distribution deal with United Artists. UA acquired the Mirisch Co. in 1963.

The company continued to work on TV and movie projects after Harold’s death in 1968, although it struggled to replicate its earlier successes into the 1970s and ’80s. Marvin died in 2002. (The fourth brother, Irving, worked on movie theater concessions for the other siblings but was not involved in the production company, according to a Times obituary. He died in 1971.)

Mr. Mirisch was married for 57 years to the former Patricia Kahan, who died in 2005. Survivors include three children, Anne, Andrew and Lawrence Mirisch; a granddaughter; and two great-grandsons.

In recent years, Mr. Mirisch had a few credits as an executive producer, including on a 2016 remake of “The Magnificent Seven.” He also nurtured dreams for unrealized projects, like an adaptation of his friend Elmore Leonard’s 1983 novel “La Brava,” a thriller that he had long hoped to bring to the screen.

“Picture makers never give up,” he told the Times in 2004, at age 82. “They all die with scripts in their hands.”

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