Roger Mayer, a movie executive who became a forceful advocate for film preservation after inspecting storehouses packed with decaying negatives on an MGM lot, has died. He was 88.
Mayer, who held top positions at MGM and at Turner Entertainment, had a heart attack Tuesday at his doctor’s Los Angeles office, said Jeff Lambert, executive director of the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Mayer was a founder and chairman of the San Francisco foundation, which has helped archivists across the U.S. save and restore hundreds of newsreels, documentaries, silent movies, avant-garde presentations and other “orphan” films. He also was a member of the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress.
At the 2005 Academy Awards ceremony, he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his film preservation work and for his support of the Motion Picture & Television Fund, an entertainment industry nonprofit that provides healthcare and social services.
An attorney who grew up in New York City, Mayer was not related to MGM film titan Louis B. Mayer. But he worked for MGM from 1961 to 1986, joining as assistant general manager of its Culver City studios.
As he learned his new job, he was shown around the lot by Ray Klune, an MGM executive who started in the business as an apprentice for D.W. Griffith. Klune led him into concrete vaults where the temperature rose to 130 degrees Fahrenheit and told him he was to keep the vaults and their rotting celluloid hoard secure.
“At least they had good security,” Mayer told Variety in 1999. “No one was going to steal those films.”
He persuaded his bosses to pay for refrigerated facilities and to establish a film preservation program even though there was little commercial reason to do so at the time. Studios now store their past work in meticulously climate-controlled settings, including some in converted mines that are hundreds of feet underground.
“He was a visionary,” Lambert said. “He saved hundreds of films that would have been lost had he left them where he found them.”
With the advent of home video, cable and satellite TV, studios found more opportunities to dust off their old films.
“Gradually,” Mayer told the Film Radar website in 2005, “the concept prevailed that it was almost as important to preserve what had been made as it was to produce something new.”
Mayer was president of MGM Laboratories before signing on as president and chief executive of Turner Entertainment in 1986, when Ted Turner acquired the MGM library.
Mayer supported the colorization of some vintage films, drawing fire from film scholars and industry players such as Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. The flap eventually brought film heritage to the attention of Congress, which ordered establishment of the National Film Preservation Board.
Mayer was “absolutely key” in that development, Scorsese, a fellow board member, said in a statement Wednesday.
“Throughout his successful career in the industry, Roger consistently put the care and preservation of collections at the forefront,” said Scorsese, who presented Mayer with his 2005 award at the Oscars.
Born in New York City on April 21, 1926, Mayer received a bachelor’s degree from Yale, where he also graduated from law school.
In the early 1950s, he tried to find work in high-end Los Angeles law firms but his Ivy League degrees and his two-year stint in the military failed him, he told the Jewish Journal years later.
“We’d love to hire you,” an attorney told him, “but we just don’t hire Jews.”
As he studied for the bar, Mayer sold pajamas at May Co. Before joining MGM, he worked in the legal department of Columbia Pictures for nine years.
His survivors include Pauline, his wife of 62 years; daughter Patty; son Larry; and granddaughters Natasha and Anna.