Ray Stark, 88; Hollywood Legend, Insider Produced 'Funny Girl,' Other Classic Films

Times Staff Writer

Ray Stark, legendary and influential Hollywood insider for six decades as literary and talent agent, studio dealmaker and producer of such classics as Richard Burton's film "Night of the Iguana" and Barbra Streisand's first movie and star-making musical, "Funny Girl," died early Saturday. He was 88.

Stark died in his sleep at his Holmby Hills home on Los Angeles' Westside, said publicist Warren Cowan. The producer had been in declining health since suffering a stroke a few years ago.

The pioneering independent producer, who had a seemingly innate ability to spot actors and directors with the potential for superstardom, was instrumental in bringing more than 250 motion pictures to the screen over four decades. He personally accepted a producer's credit only on films in which he had hands-on involvement -- listing about 125 -- and credited the others to his company.

Stark never won an Academy Award, but in 1980 he earned the most prestigious honor bestowed by the academy on producers, the Irving G. Thalberg Award. He also won the David O. Selznick Lifetime Achievement Award from the Producers Guild of America in 1999, with guild President Thom Mount calling him "one of Hollywood's most prolific film producers ... the stuff of legend."

In all his prodigious output, Stark is perhaps best remembered for "Funny Girl" and its sequel, "Funny Lady," the biography of the woman who happened to be his mother-in-law, comedian Fanny Brice.

Stark worked for several years to produce "Funny Girl," the family story of the famous Ziegfeld Follies star and mother of his wife, Frances, who died in 1992.

As a dry run for the movie he always wanted to make, he decided to produce the story as a play -- his first. The resulting musical and Streisand, the star it launched, were instant and indelible Broadway hits. The show ran for 1,348 performances.

The long-aborning and rancorously gestated musical established a stormy but productive decadelong association between Stark and Streisand.

"Barbra was an unknown when she was first brought to my attention in 'I Can Get It for You Wholesale,' " Stark told The Times in 1967. "But once I had made up my mind, I never thought of anyone else in the part. And sure enough, she and the play blended into one. Each of them, she and Fanny, took on the mantle of the other."

Initially, however, Stark balked at hiring the unseasoned Streisand to portray Fanny, and his wife so disliked her that Stark, according to a Streisand biography, declared: "She's terrible; look at that chin. She'll never play my mother-in-law." Stark at various times considered Mary Martin, Anne Bancroft, Eydie Gorme, Carol Burnett, Shirley MacLaine and others.

He was finally persuaded to choose Streisand by enthusiastic composer Jule Styne, backed by one-time co-producer David Merrick and directors Jerome Robbins and Garson Kanin.

When the musical opened March 24, 1964, on Broadway, Streisand got 23 curtain calls, and she ultimately won a Tony nomination.

A Star Is Born

With the stage version a huge success, Stark never considered anybody else for his Fanny Brice movie.

"Now, we can cast for ability in a role," he said in 1964, keeping Streisand in "Funny Girl."

"I know Barbra will be a star of the screen," the soft-spoken Stark predicted shortly before the movie was released. "She has the chemistry, in the great old sense of Garbo and Bette Davis and others. Another proof is that others can caricature her."

"Funny Girl" was her debut film, but Streisand tied for best-actress Oscar that year with the legendary Katharine Hepburn, nominated for her performance in "The Lion in Winter."

Stark negotiated a contract with Streisand to do three more movies for him within 10 years -- which turned out to be "The Owl and the Pussycat" with George Segal in 1970, "The Way We Were" with Robert Redford in 1973 and "Funny Lady" in 1975.

Streisand often railed at and about Stark, considering herself an "indentured servant" because of that contract. When he scheduled her to go on a European promotional tour for "Funny Lady," she stormed: "Ray! I hate him."

But her publicist Steve Jaffe, who persuaded her to do the tour, according to James Spada's book "Streisand, Her Life," told her: "Ray's been responsible, at least in part, for your career, Barbra. Maybe he didn't pay you what you wanted to be paid, but if you got paid what you wanted to be paid, there wouldn't be any gold in Ft. Knox."

At a wrap party for "Funny Lady," Streisand gave Stark a gift that Spada said "perfectly symbolized the conflicting dynamics of their relationship" -- an expensive antique mirror on which she scrawled in bright red lipstick "Paid in Full." But she also had engraved on the accompanying plaque: "Even though I sometimes forget to say it, thank you, Ray. Love, Barbra."

It was conceivable that Stark intentionally fostered the tension between himself and the young Streisand, or even the multiperson wrangle about her initial selection as Brice.

John Huston, the legendary filmmaker who directed "Night of the Iguana" and three other films for Stark, wrote in his autobiography "An Open Book" that:

"Ray is adept at throwing people off balance. He makes a practice of starting rows among people working for him, believing that out of the fires of dissension flows molten excellence. Though he appears to swing from bonhomie to a fierce enjoyment of an open row, there is a steady, calculating intellect in command, ever watchful."

Chose Proven Authors

Drawing on his early days in business, when he worked as a literary agent, Stark chose his film properties from proven authors like playwrights Tennessee Williams and Neil Simon. He converted Williams' play "Night of the Iguana" into a classic motion picture in 1964 starring Burton, Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner.

Stark brought 11 Simon scripts to the screen, most notably "The Goodbye Girl" in 1977 with Simon's then-wife Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss, who won an Oscar for his role. The film has just been remade for television and is debuting this weekend on TNT.

Other Simon stories that Stark screened include "The Sunshine Boys" with Walter Matthau and George Burns in 1975; "California Suite" in 1978 with Alan Alda, Michael Caine, Jane Fonda and Maggie Smith; "Chapter Two" in 1979 with Mason and James Caan; "Brighton Beach Memoirs" in 1986 with Blythe Danner; and "Biloxi Blues" in 1988 with Matthew Broderick.

Among the producer's other films were "Smokey and the Bandit" with Burt Reynolds and Sally Field in 1977 and "The Electric Horseman" with Redford and Jane Fonda in 1979.

In 1982, Stark produced a project for which he felt a passion that prospective audiences apparently did not --the film version of "Annie" -- which originated as a successful Broadway musical about the life of Depression-era comic strip character Little Orphan Annie.

In a gesture that should have aided promotion of the film, Stark made prints available to PBS stations for fundraising premieres around the country. But the motion picture did poorly, a great disappointment to its producer.

After "Annie," Stark had some success with "Blue Thunder" and "The Toy." But he also had a string of painful failures, including "Sylvester," "The Survivors," "Violets Are Blue" and Simon's "The Slugger's Wife" for Columbia; "Amazing Grace and Chuck" for Tri-Star; and "Brighton Beach Memoirs" for Universal.

He fared better with "Peggy Sue Got Married" in 1986, "Nothing in Common" starring Tom Hanks in 1986 and "Steel Magnolias," starring an ensemble cast including Julia Roberts in 1989.

In television, Stark won a 1993 Emmy in the made-for-TV movie category for HBO's "Barbarians at the Gate."

He remained an active producer until the end of the century, co-producing "Random Hearts" starring Harrison Ford with Sydney Pollack's Mirage Enterprises for Columbia in 1999.

Known for Secrecy

Stark was known throughout his long and productive career as a dealmaker and, unusual in Hollywood, a powerful filmmaker who never sought the limelight. He appeared to pride himself on secrecy.

As he sought to manipulate the fortunes of major agents and studio chiefs, he often forced his cohorts into an impish oath of silence, ending negotiations with "Swearsies?"

The witty word, quipped one colleague, could be the title of his biography, because it expressed his essence.

Stark resisted authors' attempts to write biographies of him, although he privately commissioned writers to compile interviews about him and turn those into a manuscript that has never been published.

In 1957, Stark and production executive Eliot Hyman formed Seven Arts Productions, which became a major force in producing, packaging and selling films for television. The trade publication Variety labeled the company "Hollywood's eighth major" after the then-seven prime studios.

But the company also operated, true to Stark's preferences, in the words of the late Times entertainment writer Philip K. Scheuer, as "a deep, dark mystery."

Stark himself described his company just as enigmatically: "Seven Arts is a large body of entertainment. We go into any direction from which we can make money pleasantly."

That often included starting with a playwright or a play script, producing a play, producing a film version and then distributing the movie for telecast.

Stark resigned as executive vice president of Seven Arts in 1966 to produce independently at Columbia. He eventually formed Rastar Productions and Ray Stark Productions.

A stockholder in Columbia, he was a major player at the studio as well, often influencing who became and remained chairman.

In the late 1980s, Stark was a force in unseating Columbia chief David Puttnam, a British producer who rankled the producer and much of Hollywood by advocating a more sophisticated and less commercial approach to filmmaking.

Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair, described Stark, when crossed in studio politics, as "the hound of hell."

But when Columbia fell on hard times in the early 1970s, it was Stark who quietly arranged for Wall Street investment bankers to bail it out.

He was a staunch defender of former Columbia production chief David Begelman, whose admitted embezzlements led to boardroom upheavals described in David McClintick's best-selling book "Indecent Exposure." (Begelman was fined and placed on probation, but later had his record expunged after producing a public-service film on drug abuse. He became an independent producer before committing suicide Aug. 7, 1995, at age 73.)

When the book was published in 1982, Stark bluntly told The Times: "The characters McClintick creates in his book are more a product of his creative writing ability than fact."

After Coca-Cola Inc. bought Columbia that year, Stark received a substantial block of Coke stock in exchange for his stake in the studio. He reportedly lost none of his influence at Columbia, which was just across the street from Rastar.

Stark was close to some Coca-Cola board members, professed admiration for the firm, and in 1992 conceived a commercial for the soft drink that parodied film accounts of Dracula.

Beginnings in Radio

Born in New York City, Stark was educated at Rutgers and New York University Law School. The future mogul first worked as a newsman and publicity writer, and at one time was a florist at Forest Lawn cemetery. He started his entertainment business career in the 1940s selling radio scripts -- written by his college Shakespeare professor -- to the series "Red Ryder." Before long he was representing such writers as Ben Hecht, Thomas P. Costain, J.P. Marquand and James Gould Couzzens.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, Stark gradually shifted from literary agent to Hollywood agent at Famous Artists. He represented such stars as Marilyn Monroe, William Holden, Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Gardner and Burton. The next step was producer with influence far beyond his own projects.

As he gained financial success, Stark became a philanthropist, particularly toward educational institutions. In honor of his former client, he funded a Ben Hecht Scholarship in the Cal State Northridge journalism department.

In 1979, he donated $1 million to USC for the Peter Stark Motion Picture Producing Program as part of the university's master of fine arts curricula. The gift was in honor of his son, who died in 1970.

"By supporting this program," Stark said at the time, "perhaps I can give back a little of what the film industry has given me."

He made another major donation to USC in 1984 for its cinema-television center.

In 1982, Stark donated $1 million to the California Community Foundation to support the arts and education. Other beneficiaries were the UCLA television and film school, UCLA Medical Center, Cedars-Sinai Women's Guild, the Motion Picture and TV Fund, Permanent Charities, the American Film Institute and KCET-TV Channel 28.

After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Stark helped found the Homeboys Industries Jobs for the Future program to aid youths in the urban core.

A respected collector of modern sculpture and paintings, Stark served on the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The museum will receive much of his substantial collection, which includes paintings by such artists as Willem de Kooning and sculpture by Giacometti and Henry Moore.

At Hollywood Park, Stark was known as a successful breeder of champion racehorses. He knew each horse by name and when in residence at his Los Olivos, Calif., horse farm reportedly hand-fed each horse a carrot at sunset every evening.

The California Thoroughbred Breeders Assn. named Stark its Breeder of the Year in 1982 and 1983 for his success with the filly Fabulous Notion, winner of the California Breeders' Champion Stakes at Santa Anita Park.

Stark is survived by his daughter, Wendy, and granddaughter, Allison.

Services will be private. Memorial donations may be sent to the Peter Stark Producing Program at the USC film school.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday January 25, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction Stark obituary -- An obituary for producer Ray Stark in last Sunday's California section incorrectly stated that Stark produced the motion picture "Smokey and the Bandit." The credited producer for that film was Mort Engelberg.
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