Pioneer Director Henry Hathaway, 86, Dies at UCLA

Times Staff Writer

Veteran director Henry Hathaway, whose 66 films included “The Lives of a Bengal Lancer” and “Call Northside 777,” died Monday afternoon at UCLA Medical Center, where he had been under treatment since a heart attack two weeks ago. He was 86.

Hathaway’s last major work was “True Grit,” the 1969 success that won an Oscar for its star, John Wayne. That film bore the mark of a director who got his start doing Westerns in the early 1930s and who gained a reputation for outdoor pictures with such Hollywood classics as “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” in 1936.

Hathaway preferred to shoot on location whenever possible, seeking to project realism and get better performances from his actors.


“Put your players in an actual environment,” he once said, “and they cease to have to overact. They become natural. Even if you have to come back to the studio afterward, the thing is instilled in them, and they carry it over.”

Hathaway and producer Louis De Rochemont pioneered realism in post-World War II films, such as “The House on 92nd Street"(1945) and “13 Rue Madeleine"(1947). Hathaway sustained his feel for realism with “Kiss of Death” (1947) and “Call Northside 777” (1948). The latter starred James Stewart.

He was regarded as a no-nonsense director, not pretentious about his work. He insisted that too many directors and producers were unduly influenced by the critics’ praise of art films and thus lost sight of what the public really wanted to see.

“There are men in this town,” he told an interviewer in 1968, “who would rather get good reviews than make money. . . . I say let’s look at the box office receipts instead of the reviews for a change.”

Hathaway was born in Sacramento on March 13, 1898, the son of a vaudeville actress and a stage manager. He was a child actor in early short Westerns made by the American Film Co. about 1908. He quit school at age 16 to work in a Venice soda fountain.

His mother managed to get him connected at Universal Studios, where he worked as a prop boy and did some more acting in juvenile roles.

Returned to Hollywood

Hathaway entered the Army during World War I and was a gunnery instructor. After his military service, he returned to Hollywood, where he became an assistant to such famed directors as Josef von Sternberg and Victor Fleming. It was Fleming he credited with placing him on the path to success.

In 1932, he got his chance to direct, beginning with a series of low-budget Westerns starring Randolph Scott. Within four years, he was a well-regarded director, first with Paramount and then with Fox.

Hathaway was best known for making straightforward movies with few complications and plenty of action. His pictures included:

“Go West Young Man” (1936), “Souls at Sea” (which he also produced, 1937), “The Real Glory” (starring Gary Cooper in 1939), Johnny Apollo” (1940), “The Shepherd of the Hills” and “Sundown” (1941), “China Girl” (1943), “Home in Indiana” and “Wing and a Prayer” (1944), “The Dark Corner” (1946), “Down to the Sea in Ships” (1949) and “The Black Rose” (1950).

Produced and Directed

Also: “The Desert Fox” and “Rawhide” (1951), “Niagara” (1953), “Prince Valiant” and “Garden of Evil” (1954), “The Racers” (1955), “From Hell to Texas” (1958), “Woman Obsessed” (1959), “Circus World” (1964), “Nevada Smith” (he also produced, 1966) and “The Last Safari” (1967).

After the highly regarded “True Grit” in 1969, Hathaway temporarily replaced an ailing George Seaton on “Airport” (but was uncredited) and directed a few less memorable films, including “Raid on Rommel” (1971) and “Hangup” (1974).

Although Hathaway received an Oscar nomination for “The Lives of a Bengal Lancer,” the 1935 swashbuckler that starred Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone, he never won one.

He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Blanche--or “Skip,” whom he met at a party at Fleming’s house--and a son, Jack, a Los Angeles title insurance company executive. He also leaves a granddaughter and two stepgrandchildren.

Westwood Village Mortuary has charge of arrangements for the funeral service, which is pending.