Son of film legend, producer, studio boss

Times Staff Writer

Frank Capra Jr., son of the legendary Hollywood director, who rose through the ranks to become a movie producer and for the last decade was president of EUE Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, N.C., has died. He was 73.

Capra died Wednesday of prostate cancer in a hospital in Philadelphia, his son Jonathan told The Times on Thursday.

In a Hollywood career that began as a second assistant director on TV series such as “Dennis the Menace” and “The Rifleman,” Capra became an associate producer on films such as “Play It Again, Sam,” “Marooned” and three “Planet of the Apes” outings.


He then produced films such as “Billy Jack Goes to Washington,” “Born Again” and “An Eye for an Eye.” And from 1981 to 1982, he served as president and chief executive of Avco Embassy Pictures.

Capra first came to Wilmington in 1983 to scout locations for “Firestarter,” a 1984 horror film starring Drew Barrymore that he produced for Dino De Laurentiis’ company.

De Laurentiis was so taken with the area that after the film was shot at the Orton Plantation in nearby Winnabow, he began building a studio complex near the town’s airport.

When the George Cooney family bought what by then had become Carolco Studios in a bankruptcy auction in 1996, Capra returned to Wilmington to become president of the renamed EUE Screen Gems Studios.

He remained president of the studio, which has nine soundstages and is said to be the largest film production center east of California, until his death.

“We saw the added benefit to have a producer who was simpatico with the needs of filmmakers and fellow producers in the production process,” studio owner Chris Cooney told The Times on Thursday. “The Capra name was synonymous with brilliance and high quality, and he really brought that standard to our studios.”

Bill Vassar, the studio’s executive vice president, said Thursday that Capra “was our ambassador to Hollywood.”

“He could open any door,” Vassar said. “He knew his way in and out of the film industry; he knew the culture and he knew the people. And not just the people who ran it; he knew the producers, the directors, the directors of photography. And when people came here to work, he was out there roaming the lot.”

Describing Capra as “very giving,” Vassar said that “he was a great teacher and taught film studies here at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.”

Cooney said Capra also was “a tireless advocate to get the legislation passed through the state to attract filmmakers to film in North Carolina. Because of those efforts, North Carolina is enjoying a robust economic boost due to the film activity in the state.”

Born in Los Angeles on March 20, 1934, he was one of Frank and Lucille Capra’s three children.

With a father who directed film classics such as “It Happened One Night” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” young Capra could expect stars such as Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart to drop by for dinner.

It wasn’t until he was 12, however, that he got to see his father at work.

“My mother was very dead-set against us visiting the sets,” he told the Star-News of Wilmington in 2006. “She didn’t want us to become studio brats.”

But in July 1946, Capra, along with his brother and sister, were driven to a studio ranch in the San Fernando Valley, where their father was filming “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which became a Christmas classic. There, spread out before them in 90-degree summer heat, was the town of Bedford Falls -- 75 stores and buildings over four acres and all covered with artificial snow.

“That,” Capra recalled, “was when I realized my father could make magic.”

Movies were not on his agenda after graduating from high school, however.

He studied math, geophysics and other sciences for a year at Caltech -- his father’s alma mater -- before transferring to Pomona College, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in geology in 1955. His transition to film began when he started writing and directing technical documentaries for the Hughes Tool Co. He later spent three years in the Army Signal Corps making training films and teaching combat motion picture photography.

Last December, Capra participated in what has been an annual tradition in Wilmington: a holiday screening of his family’s own 35-millimeter print of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where he introduced the film and shared his memories.

“My father said he put more of himself in that film than in any other picture,” he told the Star-News. “It spoke to his beliefs about the worth and value of the individual, how one guy discovers how much his life meant, no matter how modest it seemed to be.”

In addition to his son Jonathan, Capra is survived by his wife, Deborah; children Christina and Frank III; his brother, Tom; his sister, Lucille; and a granddaughter.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Instead of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Frank Capra Jr. Film Studies Scholarship Fund, c/o Marla Rice Evans at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, 601 S. College St., Wilmington, NC, 28403.