John Calley’s studio legacy: Maximum taste, minimum tyranny


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We’ll be hearing all sorts of industry tributes today about John Calley, the producer and studio chief who died early Tuesday at age 81. But the best tribute anyone who runs a movie studio today could pay Calley would be to actually run their business the way Calley ran his. Calley was a top executive at Warners from 1969 to 1980, overseeing a giant mushroom cloud of edgy movies and box-office hits, including ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ ‘Dirty Harry,’ ‘All the President’s Men’ and ‘Blazing Saddles.’

He ditched the movie business for most of the 1980s, but when he came back in 1989 as an independent producer, he was still on top of his game, making movies in partnership with Mike Nichols before taking control of MGM/United Artists in 1993, then joining Sony Pictures, where he led the studio for seven years before retiring in 2003.


I got to know him in the late 1990s when I was writing a writing a Sunday story for The Times, looking back at the seminal movie year of 1969. No one had less pretense than Calley. We’d go have lunch at the Grill, where most producers and studio executives would obsessively worry about being seated at one of the booths along the wall of the restaurant. Even though Calley was more of a big shot than anyone else in the room, he insisted on sitting at a table in the middle of the eatery, hardly a prestigious location, but one where he felt completely comfortable.

Calley had great stories to tell about the neurotic, maverick filmmakers of the day, but what stuck with me the most was his attitude toward running a successful studio. He firmly believed that whether you were an executive or a producer, your job was to make great movies. If they made money, so much the better, but he saw it as a wasted opportunity to spend all your waking hours worrying about sequels, remakes and all the other franchise-building fluff that studios chiefs today spend most of their brainpower bringing into the world. Whatever the conventional wisdom was, Calley was against it.

Luckily for us, Calley brought a host of great movies into the world. He also helped train several generations of talented executives, most recently Amy Pascal, who worked with him at Sony and like him has largely avoided pandering to the lowest common denominator of moviegoer tastes. As she said of Calley in a statement today: ‘John’s taste may have seemed idiosyncratic, but his pulse was unerring. How could one person have championed ‘All the President’s Men,’ ‘Blazing Saddles,’ ‘The Exorcist,’ ‘Dirty Harry,’ ‘Klute’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ at the exact right moment in time? Those are the instincts of a one-of-a-kind executive.’

Those are also the instincts of a man who proved how much he loved movies by finding a way to make a lot of good ones.


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-- Patrick Goldstein