Harold Hecht, who broke Hollywood tradition in the late 1940s by forming his own production company and made such Academy Award-winning movies as “Marty,” “Cat Ballou” and “Separate Tables,” has died of cancer at his Beverly Hills home. He was 77.
Hecht not only bucked the big studios, he was a tremendous success at it. Many of his films, like “Crimson Pirate” in 1952 and the critically acclaimed “Sweet Smell of Success” in 1957, starred his longtime friend and partner Burt Lancaster, whom Hecht met in 1946 while working as an agent in New York. Shortly thereafter the two formed their own production company.
Hecht and Lancaster, with an additional partner, producer James Hill, produced a number of commercial hits, including “The Crimson Pirate,” a spoof of the swashbuckling film genre, but it was “Marty,” the stark and poignant story of a 34-year-old Brooklyn butcher who felt he was too ugly to find love, that brought Hecht his greatest success.
Translated to film from its original television version, the Paddy Chayefsky play was a daring, new approach for the movies--a simple, riveting look at the lives of ordinary people starring unknown New York actors.
The film won four Academy Awards in l955, including best picture. Oscars also went to Chayefsky for his screenplay, Delbert Mann for directing, and a best actor Oscar went to an unknown former pipefitter named Ernest Borgnine.
Born in New York on June 1, l907, Hecht joined the American Laboratory Theater at age 16. He later appeared as a dancer and actor with the Metropolitan Opera and the Martha Graham dance companies.
Hecht came to Hollywood in the early 1930s, where with the help of friend Busby Berkeley, he became a dance director, working on classics like the Marx Brothers’ “Horse Feathers” and Mae West’s “She Done Him Wrong.”
After a brief World War II Army stint, Hecht returned to New York and became a literary agent, later broadening his clientele to include actors and directors, and finally enlisting Lancaster in his real dream: independent film production.
Their company opened a new era in Hollywood film making: controlling every aspect of the movie process from securing a property, to working with writers, selecting actors and, finally, editing, marketing and publicity.
In the mid-l960s, however, increased production costs forced the company to disband. “We lost the luxury of being able to take our time,” Lancaster said.
Hecht kept on producing, and in 1965 made “Cat Ballou.” In that picture, Lee Marvin won a best actor Oscar for his dual role and was firmly established as a movie star.
Memorial services will be held Thursday at 2 p.m. at Westwood Memorial Park.