Ned Tanen dies at 77; former president of Universal, Paramount

Ned Tanen
Ned Tanen, shown in 1990, presided over hit films such as “E.T.:The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Top Gun,” “The Untouchables” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” As an independent filmmaker he was executive producer of several so-called Brat Pack movies.
(Los Angeles Times)

Ned Tanen, a highly regarded former president of Universal Pictures and Paramount Pictures in the 1970s and ‘80s who presided over hits such as “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Top Gun,” has died. He was 77.

Tanen, whose credits as an independent producer in the ‘80s included “The Breakfast Club” and two other so-called Brat Pack films, died of natural causes Monday at his home in Santa Monica, said Alisa Covington, a friend.

“Ned was an inspiration to a lot of us, an inspiration to what a studio executive was,” said Sherry Lansing, former chairwoman and chief executive of the Paramount Motion Picture Group. “He always had integrity; he always believed in talent.”

Lansing, who worked with Tanen at Paramount when she and Stanley Jaffe produced “Fatal Attraction” and “The Accused,” said he “wasn’t just there with you when you had a hit movie. He believed in you, he stuck with you, and he made an extraordinary range of movies in all different genres.”

After launching his career as a talent agent for MCA in the 1950s, Tanen packaged TV shows for Universal in the early 1960s and later that decade founded MCA’s Uni Records.

The label, whose artists included Neil Diamond, Elton John, Olivia Newton-John and Strawberry Alarm Clock, merged with MCA’s Decca and Kapp labels to become MCA Records in 1971.

As a production vice president at Universal in the early 1970s, Tanen was known for shepherding the making of several low-budget movies that became hits, including director George Lucas’ “American Graffiti.”

Tanen became president of the studio’s theatrical motion picture division in 1976.

Under his leadership, Universal set a box-office record in 1980, with movies such as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Smokey and the Bandit II.” And in 1982, due largely to the phenomenal success of Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” the studio broke its own record, with more than $400 million in revenue.

Although relatively unknown outside the movie business, Tanen had become what the Wall Street Journal called “one of the most powerful and successful men in Hollywood.”

That is why his resignation in December 1982 as president of Universal Pictures and as a vice president and director of its parent, MCA Inc., surprised many in the industry.

But Tanen told the Wall Street Journal that, among other things, he was frustrated by having to play the “Hollywood game,” disgruntled with spending too much of his time on administrative duties at the expense of creative work and “just wanted to do other things with my life.”

As an independent filmmaker, he went on to executive-produce director John Hughes’ “Sixteen Candles” (1984), produce Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” (1985) and executive-produce director Joel Schumacher’s “St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985).

“If you look at the record, Ned Tanen probably did more to develop young talent than anyone; he spawned a whole generation of filmmakers,” said producer Albert S. Ruddy.

While at Universal in the early ‘80s, Tanen greenlighted Schumacher’s first features as a director, “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” and “D.C. Cab.”

“I’m just one of an army,” Schumacher said. “There’s a long list of directors, writers and actors that Ned had launched, and he wanted no gratitude.

“He was a person who wore this kind of cloak of, ‘Oh, I’m just a cranky curmudgeon,’ but it was totally and completely not who he really was. He was very nurturing and loving to all of us who were under his tutelage.”

Despite his previous resignation as a studio executive, Tanen accepted the position of president and chief operating officer of Paramount’s Motion Picture Group in 1984. He told the New York Times that he was willing to take the job because “it won’t be a bureaucratic nightmare.”

By choice, he said, he would concentrate on making movies and would be only indirectly involved with advertising and distribution.

“I managed to salt enough money away over the years at Universal so that financially I don’t have to work any more,” he said. “The only thing that interests me at this stage is making movies.”

At Paramount, he oversaw films such as “Top Gun,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “The Untouchables” before retiring as president of the motion picture group in 1988.

“He walked out when he was at the top,” Ruddy said. “He was very-well-liked, and he was sorely missed when he left.”

There was, Ruddy said, “an aristocratic quality to Ned. He wasn’t the rough-and-tumble kind of guy. He was slightly above the fray and loved the movies, he loved young people and he loved the process.”

Lansing recalled Tanen’s “wicked sense of humor, this kind of black humor that always made you laugh. He was always boyish and always fun and always making a joke. And he was always there for you. It’s hard to imagine a world without him.”

In 1992, Tanen signed a producing agreement with Sony Pictures Entertainment and, over the next few years, he and then-wife Nancy Graham Tanen produced “Mary Reilly,” “Cops and Robbersons” and “Guarding Tess.”

Born in Los Angeles on Sept. 20, 1931, Tanen served in the Air Force and graduated from UCLA with a degree in international relations before launching his career in the mail room at MCA in 1954.

Tanen was married three times -- to Max Tanen, the mother of his two children; Kitty Hawks; and Nancy Graham Tanen.

He is survived by his partner, Donna Dubrow; two daughters, Sloane Tanen and Tracy James;and three grandchildren.

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