Gordon T. Stulberg, Toronto-born attorney who learned early on that his favorite way to practice law was advocating rather than advising and went on to become a major entertainment industry negotiator and executive, has died at the age of 76.
Stulberg, former head of CBS’ Cinema Center Films, 20th Century Fox, Polygram Pictures and Philips Interactive Media, died Thursday at UCLA Medical Center of complications from diabetes.
Produced under Stulberg’s hand were such memorable motion pictures as “Little Big Man,” “A Man Called Horse,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” “The Towering Inferno” and “Star Wars.” Stulberg personally green-lighted the space epic after creator George Lucas was turned down by another studio.
Asked by The Times in 1981 to identify his biggest flop, Stulberg was hard-pressed to come up with an answer, saying most of his films made money. Well, maybe, he said, “Prime Cut” starring Lee Marvin, which Stulberg rated “terrible,” or “The Emperor of the North Pole,” again with Marvin, which “did no business at all.”
Listing his personal favorites was far easier. “The most rewarding ones,” Stulberg said, “have always been little films, such as ‘Sounder’ . . . ‘Paper Chase’ and ‘Harry and Tonto.’ These little pictures were gems, but they were hard decisions to make. That’s the real challenge of being an executive.”
Stulberg, who lacked any creative training, acknowledged that his method of deciding what film to produce might be unorthodox: “It’s really crazy how I choose a script, particularly in original submission. I close my eyes and try to visualize whether the kids are going to line up in Westwood on Friday night to see it.”
Clearly influential in Hollywood for many years, Stulberg never succumbed to Hollywood.
“Some people like the inside of a cake, and some like the icing,” he once told The Times, explaining why he and his wife, Helen, eschewed the glittery social circuit. “This environment in which we live is cake, I suppose, but for us icing is too rich. We don’t want to waste precious hours socializing with people we don’t really enjoy.”
The son of a labor organizer, Stulberg began his life far from Hollywood boardrooms. He worked his way through the University of Toronto doing everything from selling flowers to traveling with a carnival. After earning a law degree at Cornell, he moved to Los Angeles, where he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1951.
Working with the Los Angeles law firm of Pacht, Ross, Warne & Bernhard, he quickly discovered a knack for handling entertainment industry clients and became the point man for the Writers Guild of America.
It was Stulberg who called the writers’ first strike in 1954, establishing for all future collective-bargaining agreements the concept of “separation of rights and residuals.” Under that plan, writers would be assured payment for their work regardless of the format in which it was used--such as plays, radio, television, film or sales promotion.
During Writers Guild negotiations, Stulberg attracted the attention of Ben Kahane, second in command to Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures. Kahane set Stulberg on his path as a film executive by hiring him as his assistant in 1956.
“Ben was perhaps the finest man I ever knew,” Stulberg once told The Times. “When he offered me one of those princely Hollywood salaries, there was no hesitation on my part.”
Stulberg rose to vice president and chief studio administrative officer at Columbia in 1960 and stayed on until 1967, when CBS’ William S. Paley and Frank Stanton asked him to form the network’s film division, Cinema Center Films. There he oversaw creation of 26 films, including “Little Big Man” and the controversial and innovative “The Boys in the Band,” about gay relationships.
In 1971, Stulberg was recruited to help turn around the historic but financially troubled 20th Century Fox Film Corp. As president and chief operating officer, he helped Chairman and CEO Dennis Stanfill put the studio back in the black, clearing $80 million in debt and gaining a standby credit of $50 million. But Stulberg left abruptly at the end of 1974, citing “policy differences with the company"--in reality, differences with Stanfill.
Stulberg returned to entertainment law for five years, practicing with the Los Angeles firm of Mitchell, Silverberg & Knupp.
But by 1980, he was back at making movies, including “Endless Love” and “An American Werewolf in London,” as president of Polygram Pictures, a division of the Germany-based worldwide music, record and film company.
Always open to new challenges, Stulberg later headed Polygram’s subsidiary, American Interactive Media, and headed and was chief executive officer of Philips Interactive Media of America, pioneering interactive CDs for such children’s television programs as “Sesame Street.”
After retiring in 1994, Stulberg served on the board of Trimark Pictures and was an arbiter for the American Film Market Assn.
Born in Toronto’s Jewish ghetto, where he grew up near a local swimming pool posted “No dogs and No Jews,” Stulberg became an avid philanthropist with the United Jewish Welfare Fund. He was also active in the Motion Picture Division of the Permanent Charities Fund and in the American Diabetes Assn.
Dedicated to providing education for the disadvantaged, Stulberg helped form and headed the California Community College Assn. and encouraged his own wife, who had dropped out of high school to help support her poor Detroit family, to complete her college education. He taught at UCLA and USC and numbered director Francis Ford Coppola among his students.
Stulberg is survived by his wife and their four children, Lysienne (“Lysa”), Scott, Tina and Jac.
The family has asked that any memorial contributions be made to the American Diabetes Assn.