Walter Seltzer, a Hollywood press agent-turned-producer who started out at MGM in the 1930s and made an enduring mark on the industry in the 1980s as a tenacious fundraiser for the Motion Picture and Television Fund, has died. He was 96.
Seltzer died Friday of an age-related illness at the Motion Picture and Television Fund’s retirement home in Woodland Hills, said Jennifer Fagen, a spokeswoman for the fund.
His successful ad campaign for MGM’s “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935) helped him land a job in the studio’s publicity department, where employees alternated giving stories to the gossip columnists of the day — Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons — and were told how to mark their Oscar ballots, Seltzer later recalled.
In charge of marketing for the heartwarming 1955 movie “Marty,” Seltzer inadvertently helped Burt Lancaster’s production company make film history: The producers were the first to spend more on an Oscar campaign — about $60,000 more — than they did to make the low-budget film, according to “Reel Winners: Movie Award Trivia” (2005).
Part of the $400,000 spent on marketing went toward private screenings.
“We offered to send a print of the picture, a projector and a projectionist to the home of anyone who would invite 20 academy members to a screening,” Seltzer told the Associated Press in 2005.
He was credited with “reawakening a sleeper”: “Marty” received four Academy Awards, including for best picture.
By the late 1950s, Seltzer was helping to run Marlon Brando’s production company and in the 1960s began making a series of movies with his close friend, actor Charlton Heston. The films included the 1970s science-fiction thrillers “Soylent Green” and “The Omega Man.”
“Though through the years we disagreed violently politically, we were a good team,” Seltzer said of Heston in the New York Sun after the actor died in 2008.
Seltzer was part of a raft of press agents who made the leap to producing with “remarkable success,” according to a 1964 New York Times article that ran under the headline “Hollywood Turnabout: Flicks From Former Flacks.”
Retired from filmmaking by the late 1970s, Seltzer devoted himself to the Motion Picture and Television Fund, which cares for aging actors and others in the industry at its 40-acre campus in Woodland Hills. He served on its board for 40 years.
In the 1980s, Seltzer co-chaired a capital campaign that raised about $50 million for the fund, which supports a hospital and retirement home.
Old-fashioned arm twisting and the star power of his famous friends helped him reel in donations.
He and co-chair Robert Blumofe, a retired producer, prevailed upon such actors as Heston, Lancaster and Kirk Douglas to dine with business leaders before they were asked to support the cause.
The third member of the fundraising team was Edie Wasserman, wife of Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman. She oversaw the overall campaign but refused to take a title, Blumofe later said.
In 1986, the Motion Picture and Television Fund honored Seltzer with its Silver Medallion for humanitarian achievement. One previous recipient was actor Jean Hersholt, who in 1940 found the property that became the fund’s campus.
Both as an active donor and advocate, Seltzer “continued to work for and support the mission of the fund until the very end,” Ken Scherer, chief executive of the fund’s foundation, said in a statement
The son of a pioneering film exhibitor, Seltzer was born Nov. 7, 1914, in Philadelphia.
His older brothers also worked in the industry — Frank N. Seltzer produced films in the 1940s and ‘50s and Julian Seltzer was an advertising director for Hal Roach Studios and 20th Century Fox. Both brothers died in their late 70s.
Growing up, Walter Seltzer worked as a theater usher before attending the University of Pennsylvania from 1932 through 1934.
He came to Hollywood in 1935 as a publicist for Fox West Coast Theaters
Moving to MGM in 1936, Seltzer helped craft the public image of such stars as Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, according to the 2004 book “Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars.”
At a 1939 meeting, Howard Strickling, MGM’s longtime head of publicity, told his 60-member staff that “through the generosity of the studio” they were all members of the motion picture academy, Seltzer later recalled.
“He had enrolled everyone and paid the initiation fee,” Seltzer told the Associated Press in 2005. “There was general jubilation and thanks, then he proceeded to tell us how to vote.” (With the decline of the studio system, bloc voting ended in the 1950s.)
After stints in the publicity departments at Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures, Seltzer served in the Marines for four years during World War II.
After the war he spent nearly a decade as director of publicity at Hal Wallis Productions, where he met Heston, then embarking on a movie career.
Seltzer was versed in “the arcane mysteries” of the studio system, Heston wrote in his 1995 autobiography. “He was an intelligent, decent, and warmly witty man who, with his wife, Mickey, quickly became my first friends in Hollywood.”
Tired of begging Wallis for what he later described as “five-dollar raises,” Seltzer became publicity director for a production company formed by Lancaster and producer Harold Hecht.
At Pennebaker Productions, Brando’s independent film company, Seltzer stepped firmly into producing. He made five films, including the 1959 drama “Shake Hands With the Devil” with James Cagney and “One-Eyed Jacks,” a 1961 western starring Brando, who also directed.
Working with Brando had been an “interesting challenge” for Seltzer, Heston wrote in his autobiography.
“After some months of total inactivity, Walter urged Brando to pick one of the several projects the studio had optioned for him, so they could put it into production,” Heston recalled.
“How can you talk about making a movie when we got 800,000 people starving in India?” replied Brando, ever the social activist.
Brando’s company “died of inertia,” Heston wrote, which freed Seltzer to produce the medieval drama “The War Lord,” the first of seven films he made with Heston between 1965 and 1976.
Another Seltzer-Heston production was 1968’s “Will Penny,” “one of the best films on the cowboy/loner to come out of Hollywood,” according to Leonard Maltin’s “Movie Guide.”
The partnership also produced “The Omega Man” (1971) and “Soylent Green” (1973), two films with the same subject at their core. They came about partly because the pair “thought that the greatest social problem of our time was overpopulation,” Seltzer said in 2008 in the New York Sun. “We became a little obsessed with the idea.”
Seltzer had no immediate survivors, Fagen said.