Otto Lang, 98; Skiing Instructor Rode the Slopes to Fame as a Hollywood Producer

Times Staff Writer

Otto Lang, a pioneer Pacific Northwest ski instructor who once doubled on the slopes for figure-skating-champion-turned-actress Sonja Henie and taught movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck to ski before launching his own career in Hollywood as a producer and director, has died. He was 98.

Lang died Monday of natural causes at his home in Seattle, his family said.

Among Lang’s film credits as producer are “Call Northside 777,” a 1948 crime drama starring James Stewart; and “5 Fingers,” an Oscar-nominated 1952 espionage drama starring James Mason. He also served as associate producer of the Japanese sequences for the 1970 Pearl Harbor drama “Tora! Tora! Tora!”


As a documentary producer-director of short subjects in the 1950s, Lang received Oscar nominations for “Jet Carrier,” “The First Piano Quartette” and “Vesuvius Express.” He also directed the 1957 Lowell Thomas Cinerama travelogue “Search for Paradise,” in addition to directing episodes of numerous TV series, including “Highway Patrol,” “Sea Hunt,” “Cheyenne,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and “Daktari.”

Lang’s road to Hollywood began on the ski slopes of the Pacific Northwest, where he led the early growth of skiing in the 1930s by opening schools at Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker and Mt. Hood.

As Lang told the Seattle Times in December, “skiing is responsible for everything in my life.”

Born in 1908 in a small town outside Sarajevo, in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lang learned to ski from a Norwegian family friend. He later studied in Austria with Hannes Schneider, who developed the famous Arlberg technique, a method of teaching skiing that is still used today.

A year after immigrating to the United States in 1935, Lang arrived at Mt. Rainier in Washington, where he launched his ski school at Paradise Lodge the next fall and introduced the Arlberg technique to the Northwest. One of his early skiing students was Gretchen Fraser, who in 1948 became the first American skier to win an Olympic gold medal.

The handsome, athletic Lang displayed his own graceful skiing style in the independently produced 1936 short film “Ski Flight,” also known as “Snow Flight.” The first American-made ski film shown in U.S. theaters, it was voted best documentary by the nation’s theater exhibitors and played with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” during the Disney classic’s run at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

When Henie and Tyrone Power came to the Paradise Lodge to shoot the 1937 20th Century Fox romantic comedy “Thin Ice,” Lang donned Henie’s costume and a blond wig to film a difficult skiing sequence.

“I had volunteered to do this stunt only with the strict understanding that no still photographs were to be taken of me ‘in drag,’ ” Lang wrote in “A Bird of Passage: The Story of My Life From the Alps of Austria to Hollywood, USA,” his 1994 memoir. “So none were taken -- to my subsequent, lasting regret for having been such an old-fashioned prude.”

In 1939, Lang was invited to become co-director of the ski school at Sun Valley Resort in Idaho, and he eventually became its sole, longtime director.

At Sun Valley, Lang served as technical director for the skiing sequences on the 1941 Henie film “Sun Valley Serenade.” And after resort founder W. Averell Harriman asked Lang to give skiing lessons to 20th Century Fox head Zanuck, Lang began his film career in the off-season at his new friend’s studio.

Lang, who was inducted into the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame in 1978, wrote two books on skiing, “Downhill Skiing” and “How to Ski,” and he later published a book of photographs from his travels, “Around the World in 90 Years.”

He is survived by his longtime companion, June Campbell; sons Peter, of Santa Rosa, and Mark, of Coronado, Calif.; two grandsons; and a great-grandson.