PASSINGS: Leo Kirch, Roland Petit, Cal Montney, Lee Vines, Googie Withers, Frank Billerbeck

Leo Kirch

German media mogul

Leo Kirch, 84, who turned his one-man film distribution company into Germany’s second-biggest media business before losing control of it after a gamble on pay television, died Thursday in Munich. His family did not give the cause, but Kirch had suffered from diabetes and near-blindness for several years.


At its height, Kirch’s media group was valued at $5 billion. It held Germany’s biggest film-licensing library, the nation’s only pay-television channel and rights to two World Cup soccer tournaments. When Kirch resigned, his companies were under court protection from creditors, the biggest bankruptcy filing in Germany since World War II.

The son of a Bavarian grape grower, Kirch took time off from teaching economics at Munich University in 1956. He drove to Italy in search of filmmakers and found Federico Fellini, who had just directed “La Strada.” Kirch bought the German rights to distribute the movie, borrowing the money from his wife, Ruth.

It was a gamble that paid off. “La Strada” was popular with German audiences and ultimately considered a classic, so royalties rolled in for years. Kirch kept buying until he had the largest film library outside the United States, including the Buster Keaton library, the Laurel and Hardy library, and the Howard Hughes/RKO library with “King Kong” and “Citizen Kane.”

When German Chancellor Helmut Kohl ushered in private television in the 1980s, Kirch moved to assemble television properties. In 1996, Kirch began pouring money into a new venture: pay TV. In four years he spent more than $3 billion building Premiere World, his flagship pay-TV channel.

The endeavor didn’t pay off. German viewers who already had a wide choice of channels, many free, didn’t feel the need to pay for what Premiere World had to offer.

Roland Petit

French choreographer had Hollywood stint

Roland Petit, 87, an acclaimed choreographer whose creations dazzled audiences from Paris to Hollywood, died July 10 in Geneva, according to the Paris National Opera. The cause was not given.

Born in 1924 in Villemomble, France, Petit took his first dance steps at 9 at the Paris Opera’s School of Dance.

While opening several ballet companies in Paris after its liberation from the Nazis, as well as the Marseille ballet house, Petit maintained ties with Paris Opera, offering 11 creations, including “Notre Dame de Paris.”

His reputation grew well beyond France in the 1950s during a four-year stint in Hollywood, collaborating with Orson Welles on the 1953 ballet “The Lady in the Ice” and choreographing such film classics as 1952’s “Hans Christian Andersen” with Danny Kaye, 1955’s “Daddy Long Legs” with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron, and 1956’s “Anything Goes” with Bing Crosby and Petit’s wife, Zizi Jeanmaire.

Petit choreographed for Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, among other great dancers, during an eclectic career with the Paris Opera, Casino de Paris and what is now known as National Ballet of Marseille-Roland Petit.

In 1998, he began traveling the world to create new ballets or mount old works with the likes of the San Francisco Ballet, the Bolshoi in Moscow, La Scala in Milan, the Asami Maki Ballet of Tokyo and the National Ballet of China.

Cal Montney

Longtime L.A. Times photographer

Cal Montney, 91, a longtime staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times whose assignments included the Watts riots, died July 4 of congestive heart failure at his home in San Jacinto, said his granddaughter Patricia Borrero.

Montney spent more than 30 years at The Times and worked before that at the Los Angeles Mirror.

“He had a full range of talents,” said former Times photographer Rick Meyer. “He could shoot a fire one day and visit British royalty the next.”

Calvin Montney was born May 27, 1920, in Walker, Minn., and became interested in photography in high school. He came to California with his wife and daughter in 1940, then served in the Navy in Texas and Florida from 1944 to 1946.

Lee Vines

Veteran television announcer

Lee Vines, 92, a veteran television announcer for “What’s My Line?” and other game shows, died July 9 at a North Hollywood convalescent hospital of complications from a fall and pneumonia, said his wife, Catherine.

Besides appearing on “What’s My Line?” in the 1950s, he also was the announcer for “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” “The Name’s the Same,” “Password All-Stars” and other TV programs. He had occasional acting roles on TV including on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Born in Brantford, Canada, on April 11, 1919, Vines enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943. He served in Europe during World War II, his family said.

Googie Withers

British actress known for ‘The Lady Vanishes’

Googie Withers, 94, a British actress best known for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes,” died Friday at her home in Sydney, Australia.

Born Georgette Lizette Withers in what was then British India, she was given her nickname by her Indian nanny.

Her family moved back to Britain, where she began acting at age 12. She was a dancer in a West End production in London when she was offered work in 1935 as a film extra in “The Girl in the Crowd.”

Withers appeared in dozens of films in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, including her role as Blanche in “The Lady Vanishes” playing opposite Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. Among her other films were “On Approval,” “It Always Rains on Sunday” and “Night and the City.”

In 1958, Withers moved to Australia with her husband, Australian actor John McCallum.

Her last role was in the 1996 Australian movie “Shine.”


Frank Billerbeck, a character actor who took the stage name of Billy Beck and appeared in such movies as Billy Wilder’s “Irma la Douce” and “The Fortune Cookie” in the 1960s and 2005’s “Just Like Heaven” with Reese Witherspoon and a slew of TV roles from the 1950s to the 2000s, died of congestive heart failure June 29 at a Glendale nursing home. The longtime Silver Lake resident was 91.

Los Angeles Times staff and wire reports