Otto Spoerri dies at 75; film academy’s controller determined seating at Oscars

He has been called the most powerful person in Hollywood -- at least during Oscar season.

Otto Spoerri, who for more than two decades dispensed the tickets and seated the stars at the annual Academy Awards ceremony, died Saturday in Zurich, Switzerland, after suffering a stroke and contracting pneumonia, an academy spokeswoman said. He was 75.

The Swiss-born accountant served as controller for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1978 to 2002.

But every year since 1980, Spoerri had the additional task of being in charge of deciding the seating arrangements and distributing the tickets to the star-studded Oscar ceremony and the after-show Governors Ball.

“He was, from the day I met him, the most easygoing guy with enormous responsibility that I had ever met,” said movie producer Sid Ganis, president of the academy, who was on the board of governors during Spoerri’s tenure.

Not only was Spoerri the academy’s controller, Ganis said, but as “the keeper” of the highly sought-after tickets to the Oscar show, “everybody in Hollywood and way beyond was at his doorstep in trying to get him to give up some of his treasure.”

Once dubbed “the ultimate arbiter of industry power” by the Wall Street Journal, the affable Spoerri considered the job “a major, major undertaking.”

“It’s up to us to make sure everybody is comfortable and nobody has anything to worry about,” he said in a 2001 interview with the Record, a New Jersey newspaper and one of the many Oscar-curious news organizations that sought him out during awards season over the years.

As for how the seating is broken down, Spoerri told The Times in 2002 that studios receive an allotment of tickets based on their nominations.

“Then,” he said, “we have the nominees coming, and then we have the honored guests, who are a list of maybe 40 different people . . . from the governor to the mayor and police chief; and you have past presidents of the academy and certain obligations to some of the major contributors to the academy.”

Each nominee, Spoerri explained to the Associated Press in 1999, is offered two tickets.

He was, however, willing to listen to pleas for more.

“Some nominees ask for extra seats for parents, grown-up kids, whatever it might be,” he said. “If you can accommodate them, you do.”

Although he admittedly was “pretty awed by the star power” when he took over the job, he said, “I have said ‘no’ to stars.”

“Those phone calls aren’t very pleasant,” he told the Record. “When people start demanding things, a switch goes off in my head. If they ask first, they have a chance.”

Noted Ganis: “If he knew you and he liked you, guess what? You sat two rows in front of where maybe you should have been sitting.”

The job of seating Hollywood A-listers was not without potential pitfalls.

In the mid-1980s, Spoerri seated an actress known for her volatility too close to a top male actor, unaware that he had just dumped her.

“I figured out not to do that anymore,” he said with a chuckle. “That was early on in my career. Now, I keep up with what’s happening.”

Nominees are always seated in the front section of the theater so they can be seen by TV viewers.

And Spoerri and the Oscar TV show director made sure that the nominees for the four acting categories, best picture and best director were never seated next to a nominee in the same category.

It’s “more diplomatic” to separate them, Spoerri told The Times. “You don’t want to see a sad face next to a happy face.”

Another important rule in seating nominees: Put as many as possible next to the aisle.

“Every second counts,” Spoerri told The Record. “If it takes 25 seconds for the winner just to get on stage, the producer starts tearing his hair out.”

In a 2002 interview with National Public Radio, Spoerri said, “We try to play our own little guessing game as to who might be the winner and try to put them on an aisle.”

Seating under Spoerri’s watch unexpectedly helped contribute to one of Oscar’s most memorable moments.

In 1999, when “Life Is Beautiful” won for best foreign language film, Italian actor-director Roberto Benigni joyously hopped up and triumphantly walked across the backs of seats to get to the center aisle.

Born Sept. 25, 1933, in Zurich, Spoerri earned a bachelor’s degree at Zurich Business College and moved to the United States in 1957.

He arrived in Hollywood in 1959 and worked in finance at, among others, Coast Federal Savings and Loan, Great Western Financial Corp. and Orion Capital Corp. before going to work at the Academy as a part-time staff accountant in 1976.

When he became controller in 1978, he said in the 2002 interview with The Times, “I still had another lady who had been doing [the tickets] for, like, 40 years before she retired. She was my mentor. After the second year as controller, I had to take it over myself because she retired.”

Since Spoerri retired in 2002, the Oscar ceremony tickets and seating have been handled by the director of the membership department.

Spoerri is survived by his second wife, Wendy; his children from his first marriage, Michael and Christine; and two grandchildren.

A private memorial service will be held next year in Zurich.

McLellan is a Times staff writer.