Stereotype of Cigar-Chewing Movie Big Shot : Prolific Producer Sam Spiegel Dies at 82

Times Staff Writer

Producer Sam Spiegel, whose "The African Queen," "On the Waterfront," "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia" and other films won a remarkable total of 35 Oscars, has died at 82 while vacationing in the Caribbean, according to reports.

Spiegel, who called himself S. P. Eagle during World War II in a joking effort to cover his Austrian origin, reportedly died on the island of St. Martin.

He began making movies in 1927, eventually making so much money that he afforded a lavish life style, throwing expensive New Year's Eve parties and buying a 457-ton yacht that he based at Monte Carlo.

The immigrant producer, who eventually became a stereotype of the cigar-chewing Hollywood big shot, recalled two years ago that in his earlier Hollywood days "it was as if part of my breath was in the film. I was the parent guiding it from inception to completion."

'Mostly Ex-Agents'

But now, he observed, most producers have become nothing but packagers, assembling writers, directors and stars. Producers, he said, "are mostly ex-agents."

Spiegel enjoyed his greatest success between 1952 and 1962, when, away from Hollywood, he produced "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Suddenly Last Summer," "The African Queen" and "On the Waterfront" in association with directors David Lean, Joe Mankiewicz, John Huston and Elia Kazan.

"I somehow felt more at home away from here," he said. "I just felt liberated from the pressure of the studios. Once you achieve a degree of independence, you make only what you really must because you owe it to yourself to do it."

Spiegel was born Nov. 11, 1903, in Jaroslau, Austria, which later became Jaroslaw, Poland. He was educated at the University of Vienna, served for a time with a youth group in Palestine and then got into films as a story translator during a 1927 visit to Hollywood.

Fugitive From Nazis

He went back to Europe as a producer in Berlin of German and French versions of Hollywood films. But he became a fugitive from the Nazis and by 1933 was producing independent films elsewhere in Europe. He took the name S. P. Eagle when he was a Hollywood producer during the 1940s.

In 1954, after a series of big successes, he reclaimed his real name.

He was one of the few really independent producers in Hollywood at that time. Certainly, he was one of the few successful ones. He worked closely with his screenwriters and directors, managing to turn out movies with unusual box office appeal as well as high artistic quality.

His films included "Tales of Manhattan" (1942) which he co-produced, "We Were Strangers" (1949), "The Prowler" (1951), "The Strange One" (1957), "The Chase" (1966), "The Night of the Generals" (1967) and "Nicholas and Alexandria" (1971).

Tries for 'Gentle Picture'

He also filmed F. Scott's Fitzgerald's novel "The Last Tycoon" in 1976. When he returned to Hollywood to produce it, he said he was trying to do something that had not been done in a long time--"make a gentle picture."

"People are trying to outdo each other in shock," he said in a 1975 Los Angeles Times interview, "imagining that shock therapy will cure the ills of the movie business. But it is really like electroshock therapy. The danger is that the treatment has to be stronger every time. You've got to keep scaring them more, and where's the limit?"

But "The Last Tycoon" was a failure and convinced Spiegel that he was out of touch with the public. "Films aimed at the lowest level of taste were doing well," he said in a 1983 interview. "I decided it was time to take a break."

Spiegel maintained homes in New York, London and the Riviera. He leaves his wife, Betty; a daughter, Alisa Freedman, of Haverstown, Pa., and a son, Adam, of London.

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