Marty Pasetta dies at 82; directed 17 Oscar shows, Elvis satellite concert

Marty Pasetta has died at 82; director of Oscar telecasts, inaugural galas for Presidents Carter, Reagan

Marty Pasetta, a veteran director of live TV extravaganzas, including 17 Academy Awards shows and inaugural galas for Presidents Carter and Reagan, has died. He was 82.

Pasetta died Thursday from injuries sustained in a single-car accident in La Quinta, where he lived.

According to the Riverside County coroner's office, the driver of the car in which the director was riding had left the engine on after they left the vehicle. The car struck Pasetta and another passenger. Pasetta died at the scene.

The operator of the vehicle, Keith Stewart, 75, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.

During four decades in television, Pasetta directed and produced specials for many of Hollywood's biggest names, including Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, and oversaw star-studded tributes to Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Astaire and Alfred Hitchcock.

He was credited with convincing Elvis Presley to suspend his drug use and lose weight for the 1973 special "Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii," which has been described as the first satellite broadcast of a live concert.

The Elvis special was Pasetta's proudest achievement, according to his son, Marty Pasetta Jr. According to some estimates, more than 1 billion people worldwide saw the concert.

The show he was best known for, however, was the Academy Awards. He directed every Oscars telecast from 1972 to 1988 and was responsible for introducing split screens, instant replays and musical numbers involving large numbers of background dancers, lasers and pyrotechnics.

His years with the Oscars show were also memorable for unscripted drama, on and off stage.

In 1973, for example, tempers flared backstage when Sacheen Littlefeather accepted Marlon Brando's best actor award for "The Godfather" with an overtly political speech decrying the depiction of Native Americans in film. John Wayne was in the wings "and was so angry he wanted to go out and pull her off stage," Pasetta recalled in an interview with United Press International in 1984.

Then there was the time that presenter Charlton Heston's car blew a tire on the freeway. As a last-minute replacement for the actor known for playing Moses in the "The Ten Commandments" Pasetta yanked Clint Eastwood from his seat in the audience.

"That was the year the writers had got very clever," Pasetta recalled in the Chicago Tribune years later. "It was all written in Biblicalese — 'thou' this, 'thou' that — and poor Clint couldn't paraphrase it.... It totally freaked him out."

Pasetta also presided over the 1974 program disrupted by a naked man who "streaked" across the stage behind Elizabeth Taylor and David Niven. "We have been accused over the years of planning that one," Pasetta told the Chicago Tribune, "but it's not true."

The prank prompted a witty comeback from Niven, who said: "The man is showing off his shortcomings."

Martin Allen Pasetta was born June 16, 1932, in San Jose. He attended Santa Clara University, but dropped out to work at San Francisco's KGO-TV, where he rose to stage manager and producer.

He later moved to Los Angeles, landing his first major directing job on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" in 1967.

He also helped launch and direct the long-running game shows "Wheel of Fortune" and "Love Connection."

In addition to his son Marty, Pasetta is survived by his wife, Elise, daughter, Debbie, son Gregory and five grandchildren.

Twitter: @TrevellAnderson

Times staff writer Elaine Woo contributed to this report.

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