No one said not to be nice
Those who believe nice guys finish last in Hollywood haven’t met veteran producer Walter Mirisch.
Novelist and friend Elmore Leonard dedicated his Hollywood satire “Get Shorty”: “To Walter Mirisch, one of the good guys.” And when Sidney Poitier received his honorary Oscar in 2002 he thanked Mirisch, “whose friendship lies at the very heart of this moment.”
Beginning Friday, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s film department will pay tribute to Mirisch and the Mirisch Corp., the independent production company he operated with his brothers, Harold and Marvin. Founded in 1957, the corporation made more than 65 movies for United Artists, building a reputation over nearly 20 years for being audacious and filmmaker friendly.
Mirisch and his brothers received the best picture Oscars for 1960’s “The Apartment,” 1961’s “West Side Story” and 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night.” They worked with and nurtured such notable directors as Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards, Norman Jewison, William Wyler, George Roy Hill and Hal Ashby.
“We have a body of work that includes the work of a lot of great directors,” says Walter Mirisch, a very spry 82. “I sort of see this retrospective as a very gratifying validation of what the Mirisch company has contributed to motion picture history.”
Among the pictures featured in the retrospective are “Some Like It Hot,” “A Shot in the Dark,” “The Apartment,” “West Side Story” and “Two for the Seesaw.” On Saturday, Poitier will join Mirisch for a discussion after the screening of “In the Heat of the Night.”
Frank Mazzola, a former actor (“Rebel Without a Cause”) turned editor, approached LACMA about doing a Mirisch tribute. Mazzola started working at the Mirisch Corp. in the mid-1960s.
“It was such a great company,” Mazzola says. “It was the best company I have ever seen in this town. There was a magic that they had.... When you were at the studio, you became part of the family....They just hired the best people and put them in the best places.”
Mirisch says that he wanted to get into the movie business after graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1942. “There weren’t a lot of film schools like there are now. I thought it would be helpful if I went to the Harvard Business School.”
And he was right. Soon after arriving in Los Angeles in 1945, he landed a job working for the general manager of Monogram Studios, which specialized in low-budget B-pictures.
“I had to try and find material that would fit into their program,” says Mirisch, relaxing in his office at Universal. “The ‘Tarzan’ pictures had been perennials forever. I thought perhaps I could create a series of pictures.... I remembered this series of children’s books called ‘Bomba the Jungle Boy.’ I thought I could make an inexpensive version of ‘Tarzan’ with that. I naturally gravitated to Johnny Sheffield, who played Boy [in ‘Tarzan’]. He ... became ‘Bomba the Jungle Boy.’ ”
Mirisch was all of 23 when he became a movie producer. He made about a dozen of successful “Bomba” pictures. Six years after the first “Bomba,” Mirisch was put in charge of production at the studio. “I am proud of some of the pictures we made then. We made ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ there.”
But with the popularity of television, the demand for B-pictures slackened. “We realized we needed to get into making first features.” By that time, Mirisch’s brother Harold had joined him in Hollywood. Monogram was renamed Allied Artists, and its first two A-films were the Oscar-nominated 1956 drama “Friendly Persuasion,” with Gary Cooper, and the 1957 Wilder comedy “Love in the Afternoon,” with Cooper and Audrey Hepburn. The films, though, were not commercial hits and, Mirisch says, “Allied Artists couldn’t go forward with pictures of that stripe.”
When the third Mirisch brother, Marvin, arrived in Hollywood, the siblings formed their own independent company. “We talked to Arthur Krim, who was the president of United Artists then, and made an arrangement to produce a slate of pictures for them.”
The company was successful in part because the Mirisches got along well with filmmakers. “I am proud of that,” Mirisch says. “I am proud that Billy Wilder, I guess made nine or 10 consecutive films for us and made films exclusively for us for over 15 or 16 years.”
United Artists, says Mirisch, had approval of the property and material that the Mirisches wanted to produce.
“As they came to have more confidence in us and in our filmmakers, and we came to have more strength in dealing with them, that relationship was modified,” he says.
Mirisch wasn’t afraid of tackling controversial projects such as 1967’s racial drama “In the Heat of the Night,” which starred Poitier as a sophisticated Philadelphia detective and Rod Steiger as a bigoted Southern sheriff.
“It was very difficult to get that made,” he recalls. “People don’t really realize it was made right smack in the center of the civil rights revolution,” he says. “Before we made the picture, I was told by financiers, ‘You will start riots in the South with this picture.’ I said if it doesn’t play in the South, it doesn’t play in the South. What it has to say is so very important that the picture has to be seen, and there are enough places in this country where people will see and will want to see it.”
Mirisch still has irons in the fire, including producing a movie based on Leonard’s “La Brava.”
“Picture makers never give up,” he says with a smile. “They all die with scripts in their hands.”
‘The Magnificent Mirisches’
Where: Leo S. Bing Theater, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.
When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 1 p.m. Tuesdays
Ends: Nov. 6
Price: $9 general admission; $6 museum and AFI members, seniors 62 and older and students with valid ID. Tuesday matinee tickets: $2 general admission; $1 seniors 62 and older.
Contact: (323) 857-6010
Friday: “Some Like It Hot,” “A Shot in the Dark”
Saturday: “In the Heat of the Night”
Oct. 22: “The Apartment,” “The Landlord”
Oct. 23: “The Magnificent Seven,” “Mr. Majestyk”
Oct. 29: “Two for the Seesaw,” “Same Time, Next Year”
Oct. 30: “West Side Story”
Nov. 2: “The Great Escape”
Nov. 6: “Fiddler on the Roof”