John Box, 85; Four-Time Oscar Winner Created Lavish Settings

Times Staff Writer

John Box, four-time Academy Award-winning art director and production designer who re-created wintry Russia in midsummer Spain for "Doctor Zhivago" and built lavish dreamscapes for other period productions, has died. He was 85.

Box died March 7 in Leatherhead, Surrey, England, of natural causes associated with aging.

The Briton collected an impressive four Oscars for epic films released from 1962 through 1971: "Lawrence of Arabia," "Doctor Zhivago," "Oliver!" and "Nicholas and Alexandra." He was also nominated for Academy Awards for his work on the 1972 film "Travels With My Aunt" and the 1984 "Passage to India."

Box earned Britain's equivalent of the Oscar, the British Film Academy Award, (for best art direction for re-creating 16th century England for the 1966 "A Man for All Seasons," imagining early 20th century America for "The Great Gatsby" in 1974 and conjuring the game as well as the arena for the futuristic 1975 "Rollerball." He also received the British Film Academy Award for special contribution to filmmaking in 1991 and a Film Critics' Circle Award for lifetime achievement in 1999.

Among his more recent films were "Black Beauty" in 1994 and "First Knight" in 1995, starring Sean Connery as King Arthur and Richard Gere as Lancelot, for which he built a Camelot from scratch in a Welsh reservoir.

"If I do my job well, nobody should notice there's been a production designer on the film," Box told the Los Angeles Times in 1995 when "First Knight" was released. "We have a saying: 'No picture postcards, please.' Never be self-conscious. Never show off. Don't show people how clever you are."

The London-born Box grew up in Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, where his father worked as an engineer. He later studied architecture at the University of London and served in the British Army during World War II, commanding a tank regiment in France.

After the war, he completed his architectural degree and went to work as a draftsman for London Films at Denham Studios. Box, who liked to describe himself as "of the David Lean school," opted for film over architecture for two reasons: In cash-strapped post-war England, few buildings were getting built, and he became inspired by seeing Lean's 1946 black-and-white "Great Expectations."

By the mid-1950s, Box had moved up to art director, credited on the 1953 "The Million Pound Note," starring Gregory Peck, and the 1956 film "Zarak," starring Victor Mature.

Box hit his stride toward the end of the decade with "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness" for director Mark Robson, for which he re-created a walled Chinese city in Wales; "Our Man in Havana" for Carol Reed, putting the glamour back into a Cuba nearing Fidel Castro's revolution; and "The World of Suzie Wong," adapting teeming Hong Kong streets for the camera of director Richard Quine.

The art director first got the chance to work for Lean on the famed director's "Lawrence of Arabia" in 1962 and teamed up with him again three years later on "Doctor Zhivago." They also worked together on "A Passage to India" in 1984.

Box first earned the nickname "the magician" when he produced a snowy Russia in the scorching location in Spain that Lean chose for "Zhivago."

But the production designer had already proved his creativity to Lean on "Lawrence" in the middle of a barren desert.

To enhance the scene of Omar Sharif emerging from a mirage toward Peter O'Toole as Lawrence, Box had the sand painted black. Then he remembered a lesson from architectural school about the importance of lines. "I suddenly had an idea," he told The Times in 1995. "I painted a white line toward the mirage.... The cameraman went over and kicked at it, dismissing it as art department b.s."

But the line worked. "After shooting, O'Toole came up to me and hugged me," Box said. "He said it was extraordinary. He focused on it, and that one small detail made his concentration on the mirage that much more intense."

He said Lean came up to him and said, "I don't know how long you're going to live, but you'll never do a better job of designing in your life."

Once divorced and once widowed, Box is survived by two daughters, Susan and Deborah.

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