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Michael Gross, who designed ‘Ghostbusters’ logo, dies at 70

Michael Gross in his studio in Oceanside last year. Long before creating the 'Ghostbusters' film logo, he was art director at National Lampoon.
(Lenny Ignelzi / Associated Press)

When Michael Gross designed what became the famous “Ghostbusters” film logo, he had no idea it would take flight the way it did.

The logo is called No Ghosts and features an anxious-looking spook in a red circle reaching past a diagonal red bar.

In the 1980s, its creator attended an air show and saw his work painted on a fighter jet’s nose.

“I looked at it and laughed,” he told the Telegraph, a British newspaper, earlier this year. “I said to myself, ‘So when I look out the window and I see the horizon light with mushroom clouds, I’ll know that, over Moscow, my logo is dropping a missile.’ That might be the strangest place I ever saw it.”

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For years, No Ghosts was everywhere. In 2012, Pratt Institute, the New York City art school where Gross trained, declared it one of the 125 most famous designs by alumni or faculty. In an alumni vote, it was deemed the most admired of them all, beating out the Chrysler Building, the Scrabble board and the IBM logo.

Gross, an art director who designed memorable covers for National Lampoon magazine before heading for Hollywood and producing films, died Monday at his home in Oceanside. He was 70.

Gross had cancer, said his son Dylan Goss,an aerial photography director who changed his last name in his 20s.

After his diagnosis two years ago, Gross had each of his art students draw a hand with an upraised middle finger.

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“I said to myself this is really funny,” he told the Associated Press. “And I said this also makes a nice statement about how I feel about cancer.”

Gross got about 30 other design professionals to contribute to the distinctive digital display he called his Flip Cancer campaign.

As art director at National Lampoon, Gross created images that endured.

Perhaps his best-known was the cover for the January 1973 Death issue — a photograph of a cute little dog with a gun pointed at its head, along with a warning: “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.”

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It was originally supposed to be a subscription ad on an inside page, followed the next month with an ad featuring a supposedly doomed cat. But Lampoon editors decided that the dog, which was rented for the photo shoot, would make an ideal cover for an edition designed to sting death itself.

“We made up these themes almost arbitrarily, to give us focus,” Gross said in an interview with the Comics Journal last March. “We’d say, ‘Death? That sounds good.’ ”

Gross also was renowned for his cover portrayal of Lt. William Calley, who was charged with the mass murder of civilians in Vietnam. Pictured on National Lampoon, Calley had the face of Mad Magazine’s goofy Alfred E. Neuman. The headline asked: “What, My Lai?”

Born Oct. 4, 1945, in Seattle, Michael Curtiss Gross grew up in Newburgh, N.Y. At 17, he married Glenis Wootton and headed for art school.

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He dropped out in 1966 but picked up entry-level art jobs at magazines before designing graphics and posters for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Back in New York, he was with National Lampoon from 1970 to ’74. He also did freelance design for clients including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who summoned him to their Greenwich Village apartment.

“There they are in bed, watching some Black Panthers on the evening news,” he told the Telegraph.

In 1979, Gross, who by then had unhappily ventured into corporate marketing, moved his young family to Los Angeles.

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“He didn’t have a job out there,” his son said. “I don’t think he told us that.”

Thanks to his Lampoon-era friends who headed for Hollywood, including Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, Gross was shortly at work doing production design on Ivan Reitman’s animated sci-fi/horror/rock film, “Heavy Metal.”

His second film, released in 1984, was his biggest: “Ghostbusters.”

In addition to a number of “Ghostbusters” film and TV spinoffs, he produced movies including “Legal Eagles” (1986), “Twins” (1988), “Kindergarten Cop” (1990), “Beethoven” (1992) and “Dave” (1993).

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By 1995, he was done with the stresses of Hollywood. For a few years, he lived and painted in a 500-year-old farmhouse in Spoleto, Italy.

A few years later, he was back in California, settling in Oceanside. He taught, took photographs, and curated for the Oceanside Museum of Art.

In addition to Dylan, he is survived by a daughter, Gina Misiroglu, and three grandchildren. Glenis Gross died in 2006.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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