From the Archives: Otto Preminger, Trend-Setting Producer-Director, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Otto Preminger, who as an actor portrayed a series of military despots on the screen and as a director was accused of sometimes acting like one, died Wednesday.

The volatile and talented producer-director of such versatile and trend-setting films as “Anatomy of a Murder,” “The Moon Is Blue,” “The Man With the Golden Arm” and “Laura” was 80 and died in his Manhattan apartment of cancer.

At his side was his third wife, Hope.

Innovator, autocrat and craftsman, Preminger basked in the outrageous aura he had created for himself, describing actors as “children” and demanded of them obedience if not fealty.

When Lana Turner walked off the set of “Anatomy of a Murder” in 1959—supposedly in a dispute with him over a costume—he vowed to “get an unknown and make her a star.”

He then cast Lee Remick as the woman who said she was raped by the man her husband is accused of killing.


When the film opened Time magazine cautioned:

“In scene after scene the customers are bombarded with such no-nonsense words as “intercourse . . . contraceptive . . . spermatogenesis . . . sexual climax . . ..”

It was another of the sensational themes that Preminger, the innovator, used to shock and amuse mid-America as it moved from wartime puritanism to postwar adventurism.

Earlier, in “The Moon Is Blue” the words “virgin” and “pregnant” were heard for the first time by American filmgoers. The film was distributed without the Motion Picture Production Code seal of approval and officially condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. What it may have lacked in morality, however, it made up for at the box office and the light-hearted bedroom romp proved one of 1953’s most successful productions.

Born in Vienna

It was one of the ironies of Preminger’s life that he first became known to American filmgoers portraying skin-headed Nazis. Although he possessed the bullet head and martinet demeanor of a born Prussian, Otto Ludwig Preminger actually was born a Jew, to a successful Viennese attorney.

He flirted with a career in law at his father’s urging but found early on that his real passion was the theater.

He made his debut at 17 in a Max Reinhardt production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and produced a series of successful comedies in Vienna while attending law school. He graduated with a law degree from the University of Vienna in 1928 but by that time also had two years of serious theatrical experience under Reinhardt, the legendary German director.

In 1931 he directed his first film, “Die Grosse Liebe” (“The Great Love”) and four years later achieved a widely heralded success as the director of “Libel,” a courtroom stage drama. He quickly was invited to America to establish the play on Broadway and the attractiveness of the offer coupled with the uncertain political climate in Germany made it an easy choice.

Ran Afoul of Zanuck

He went from Broadway to Hollywood to study film direction but ran afoul of Darryl Zanuck in an argument of interpretation over his first big-budget picture “Kidnapped.”

Blacklisted here he returned to Broadway where he starred in and directed Clare Boothe Luce’s play “Margin for Error.” He cast himself as the Nazi villain.

Next he directed John Barrymore in his final stage drama, “My Dear Children,” concurrently teaching direction and production at Yale.

When the United States declared war on Germany in 1941 Hollywood sought out Prussian types for the anti-Nazi films it was starting to make and Preminger’s earlier transgressions were suddenly forgiven.

He returned to play a Nazi officer in “The Pied Piper” and directed and starred in the film version of “Margin for Error.”

Thought Film Would Fail

Zanuck came back from war to find his old nemesis in demand as both actor and director. Zanuck tried to keep Preminger from directing “Laura” but when the first daily rushes from the set indicated the film might fail, Zanuck acquiesced.

The classic mystery thriller with Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews and Clifton Webb became one of the most commercially successful films of all time and many consider it Preminger’s finest effort.

He stayed with 20th Century Fox for the next decade, directing some forgettable comedies (“A Royal Scandal,” “Where Do We Go From Here”) and an expensive dramatic flop (“Forever Amber.”)

He became an independent producer in the 1950s, choosing the controversial “The Moon Is Blue” as his maiden effort.

Over the years he lured George C. Scott from Shakespearean theater to celluloid; took a chance on Frank Sinatra in the narcotics-oriented “The Man With the Golden Arm” when Sinatra was seeking a career outside singing and found a 17-year-old druggist’s daughter in Marshalltown, Iowa, to portray “Saint Joan.” It was to prove the high point of young Jean Seberg’s life. She died a suicide in 1979.

Refused to Speak to Him

The acrimony grew with the credits. Dyan Cannon refused to ever speak to him again after “the discord and mayhem on his set sent me reeling . . .” in the 1972 filming of “Such Good Friends.”

He also was credited with converting Tom Tryon from actor to writer based on Tryon’s tempestuous experiences with Preminger during the filming of “The Cardinal.”

Preminger occasionally still went in front of the camera, portraying another quintessential Nazi in “Stalag 17" and “Mr. Freeze” in a segment of television’s “Batman.” The latter, he said, was to surprise the twins from his last marriage in 1960.

He directed one highly successful all-black film—"Carmen Jones"—and one equally unsuccessful—"Porgy and Bess.”

He also became a leading liberal voice—casting Joseph Welch, the jurist who castigated Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings, as a judge in “Anatomy of a Murder"—and helped Dalton Trumbo reestablish screen credit after the writer was blacklisted for being one of the Hollywood 10. They were writers, editors and directors who refused to disclose their political beliefs to Congress during the violently anti-Communist McCarthy era and Trumbo had been hired under a pseudonym to adapt “Exodus” for the screen.

Never Won an Oscar

Preminger insisted Trumbo’s true name appear large among the credits.

He accumulated many honors—primarily theatrical awards for his Broadway work—but never an Academy Award for his films. He was nominated for the Oscar, however, for “Laura,” “Anatomy of a Murder” and “The Cardinal.”

At his death Preminger had acted in and/or directed 42 films and become nearly as famous for his curmudgeonry as for his art.

“The truth is,” he said in a 1979 interview with The Times, “rows make good copy, so they get printed. I am not so terrible tempered. Sometimes. But not often.”

Besides his wife, twin son and daughter, he is survived by Erik Lee Preminger, a son born out of a relationship with actress-stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and who has worked as a writer for his father.


From the Archives: Charlton Heston, An Outsize Figure On the Big Screen, Dies at 84

From the Archives: Death Calls To John Gilbert, Screen Star

From the Archives: Bette Davis Dies in Paris at 81

From the Archives: Gloria Swanson, Queen of Movies’ Golden Years, Dies

From the Archives: Suave Film Star Clifton Webb Dies at 76