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Murray Fisher, 69; Shaped Playboy Interview Feature

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Hugh M. Hefner walked into his new Playboy magazine office in Chicago in 1962, ordering the creation of an in-depth interview feature, he suggested that staff members take a look at leftover celebrity stories meant for the glossy publication Show Business Illustrated that he had just folded.

The task fell to a young associate editor named Murray Fisher who, rummaging among the inventory, found an unfinished piece by the unknown writer Alex Haley on jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Intrigued by Davis’ raging commentary about being black in white America, Fisher urged Haley to spend more time with the musician.

The result, published in September 1962, was the first Playboy Interview, a feature that became one of the magazine’s most popular attractions and over the decades has elicited remarks that made headlines.

Murray Fisher, who edited that first Playboy Interview by Haley and all the monthly versions that followed until he left the magazine to help Haley complete his autobiographical saga “Roots,” has died. He was 69.

Fisher died Friday in Santa Monica after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and a series of strokes, said his wife, Sara.

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Thomas Weyr, who examined the development of Playboy in the book “Reaching for Paradise,” wrote that Fisher “made the Playboy Interview a form of literary expression that neither the looser models--from the Paris Review to Redbook--nor the television version ever matched.”

“The Davis interview would prove a Playboy benchmark, and not only because of the searing discussion of race it presented,” Weyr wrote. “It marked the beginning of the Playboy Interview, which has become one of the most vibrant and important public-opinion forums in the United States.”

Thirty years after he helped launch the feature, Fisher described the in-depth Playboy Interview for the New York Times as equal parts psychoanalysis and jury trial, with the interviewer reserving the right to cross-examine.

“Celebrities are used to being interviewed,” he said then. “They have a ready-made set of answers to questions they’ve been asked before. So you ask those, but then you don’t leave. You let them exhaust their repertory of defense mechanisms, and after three or four hours you’re down to bedrock. That’s when it gets interesting.”

Befriending Haley as he emerged from 20 years in the Coast Guard to begin a writing career in his 40s, Fisher edited several of his interviews and then left Playboy and Chicago in 1974, moving to Los Angeles to help Haley edit his epic. Haley thanked him in the acknowledgments to “Roots” when it was published in 1976:

“Murray Fisher had been my editor for years at Playboy magazine when I solicited his clinical expertise to help me structure this book from a seeming impassable maze of researched materials. After we had established ‘Roots” pattern of chapters, next the story line was developed, which he then shepherded throughout.

“Finally, in the book’s pressurized completion phase, he even drafted some of ‘Roots” scenes, and his brilliant editing pen steadily tightened the book’s great length.”

Fisher was such an excellent editor that some Haley critics later claimed that Fisher actually wrote the book. Fisher vehemently denied any personal authorship, and said his efforts on Haley’s behalf were nothing more than normal editing. He praised Haley’s writing in his introduction to the 528-page book Fisher edited, “Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews.”

In that book, Fisher rated Haley’s question-and-answer articles “among the best ever printed” and noted that Haley’s last interview, “Malcolm X Remembered” published in July 1992, was delivered “letter-perfect and on time.”

“It was very important to Murray that his role in the creation of ‘Roots’ remain in the background,” said Larry DuBois, who did Playboy interviews for Fisher on Robert Redford and Roman Polanski, among others, and later worked with the editor at Medallion Books in Los Angeles. “He loved Alex Haley and what ‘Roots’ meant to blacks in America. He wanted all the credit to go to Alex.”

Fisher, who had assigned Haley to do a 1963 Playboy Interview with Malcolm X, also edited Haley’s efforts on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which grew out of the interview.

As Fisher related in the book of Haley’s Playboy Interviews, Malcolm X originally chastised Haley for permitting Fisher to “censor” the book. He changed his mind after Haley had him read Fisher’s editing notes.

“He’s not trying to water it down. He’s trying to make it better,” Malcolm X told Haley with surprise. Later, just before his assassination and the book’s publication in 1965, the activist wrote to Fisher, saying: “The friendship of people like yourself gives me hope that black and white can learn to live in peace.”

Born in China to American missionaries, Fisher grew up in post-World War II Tokyo, where his father was working for Reader’s Digest. Fisher became a war correspondent in South Korea, then worked for NBC in the 1950s before joining Hefner’s neophyte Playboy.

It was as an editor, rather than as a writer, that Fisher built his quiet reputation. When he edited Playboy Interviews in their formative years from 1962 to 1974, according to his successor, Playboy Executive Editor G. Barry Golson, in his 1981 book “The Playboy Interview,” Fisher imposed the rigorous standards that would make the feature a literary phenomenon.

Fisher first assigned an interviewing journalist to submit several hundred written questions, which Fisher would discuss with him and edit. Under Fisher’s direction, the interviewer would spend another month researching the subject’s background and talking to those who knew him.

Then Fisher sent the journalist to do the interview--which could occur over several sessions and produce from six to 20 or more hours of taped conversation.

Fisher’s technique, changing the interview from ear-friendly to eye-friendly for the page, was, as Golson described it, to sift and refine the endless taped verbiage into a continuous, linear and always fascinating conversation.

The transformation required considerable editing skills--condensing, rearranging, squeezing out repetitions, meanderings and pauses, yet keeping the result true to the subject’s conversational pattern and statements.

Fisher’s standards calling for hundreds of questions and hours of talk, coupled with his admonition “but then you don’t leave,” produced Playboy’s first coup in 1963 when he assigned Norman MacKenzie to interview Bertrand Russell. They expected to hear the Nobel-winning mathematician, philosopher and pacifist’s views on disarmament, and criticism of the U.S.-Soviet arms race.

“But as it turned out, Lord Russell had some unconventional views on other matters, too, calling for a new outlook on sexuality, for a revamping of sexual education, for a new and open morality--topics congenial to Playboy but not often articulated by such a respectable spokesman,” wrote Golson in introducing the interview in his book. “It was Fisher’s--and Playboy’s--first real coup.”

DuBois, who called Fisher “a main force in making Playboy a literary effort” from its inception, said Fisher also started the magazine’s “Sex and the Cinema” column and worked to develop such writers as humorist Jean Shepherd.

After Fisher left the magazine in 1974, he kept a close relationship with the staff and with Hefner, DuBois said, and in the 1990s helped Hefner work on an autobiography that was never finished.

As an editor, Fisher worked with Medallion Books and, until illness intervened a few years ago, as editorial director of General Publishing Group, which has published such books as “Playboy: 40 Years” and “In the Kitchen with Rosie” by Oprah Winfrey’s cook, Rosie Daley.

Fisher is survived by his wife of 14 years, Sara; and two children from a previous marriage, Suzanne Fisher of Aspen, Colo., and Garrett Fisher of New York City.

Services will be private.


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