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Obituaries

Wayne Fitzgerald, the king of movie title sequences from ‘Godfather’ to ‘Chinatown,’ dies at 89

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Undated photo of Wayne Fitzgerald, one of the best known and most prolific designers of movie titles sequences.
(MaryEllen Courtney)

For the record:
12:37 PM, Oct. 01, 2019 An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Warren Beatty as the director of “Bonnie and Clyde.” He was producer and starred in the film. Arthur Penn was the director.

When Wayne Fitzgerald, fresh out of design school in 1951, took a job at Hollywood’s Pacific Title & Art Studio, his aim was to gain enough design experience to begin a lucrative career producing commercials for the then-burgeoning television market. But he got hooked on the idea that movie title sequences could be more than just “book covers,” as he once described it, and he parlayed that concept into a 50-year career designing title sequences for more than 500 movies, including “The Searchers,” “The Music Man,” “The Graduate,” the “Godfather” series, “Chinatown” and “The Deer Hunter.”

He also designed title sequences for scores of television shows, including “Cheyenne,” “Maverick,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “Dallas,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and the political slugfest from the 1980s, “The McLaughlin Group.”

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Fitzgerald died Monday on Whidbey Island, Wash. His health declined after coming down with the flu in the spring, said his wife of 24 years, MaryEllen Courtney, who worked with Fitzgerald in title design for 18 years before his retirement in 2001. He was 89.

In an industry filled with raw ambition and bombast, Fitzgerald developed a Hollywood reputation for courtliness mixed with consummate professionalism. He was focused intently on the budding art of crafting opening credits that set the mood and tone of films and thus generated audience intrigue and expectation. He was part of a small cadre of title designers (others included Saul Bass, Friz Freleng and Maurice Binder) who pioneered this enduring new concept of film openings.

Fitzgerald’s respectful manner once stirred movie mogul Jack Warner to say to him: “You know what I like about you, kid? You know when to stop talking.” But Fitzgerald also displayed a quiet tenacity. The noted film editor Dede Allen once said he could “out-stubborn stubborn.”

For example, during production for the 1967 blockbuster “Bonnie and Clyde,” Fitzgerald found himself in a crossfire between studio head Warner and producer and film star Warren Beatty, who disagreed on how to fine-tune Fitzgerald’s title sequence. As head of Pacific Title’s Warner Bros. account, Fitzgerald felt compelled to bend to Warner’s will, although the studio boss had no official responsibility for the film. Fitzgerald also thought Warner was correct on the merits.

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But when an angry Beatty urged Fitzgerald to start his own title design firm so he could avoid studio meddling and such crossfire situations, Fitzgerald resigned from Pacific Title the next day and established his own business. His subsequent opening sequence for “Bonnie and Clyde” -- a series of Kodak snapshots denoting the outlaw couple’s favorite mode of self promotion -- became famous as a particularly effective film opening. The Los Angeles Times review of the movie said that the “awareness that we are not in for quite what we expected ... begins with the titles.”

Fitzgerald’s passion for movie openings emerged in the midst of a conundrum facing filmmakers. The old approach to title sequences wasn’t working anymore. As Fitzgerald described it to the publication Film Comment in 1982: “You did an illustration, you put the name of the picture on there, you had about eight titles and it faded out, and you got on with the movie, and everybody sort of ignored it.”

But as title sequences got longer to highlight more actors and film professionals, they became barriers to audience enthusiasm. “This was the time people were really going to sleep during titles,” Fitzgerald recalled. Thus did the idea of enhancing title sequences catch on, and Pacific Title urged Fitzgerald to attack the challenge under its imprimatur.

Wayne Fitzgerald was born March 19, 1930, in Los Angeles, where his father was a milkman who for years distributed his product from a horse-drawn wagon. His mother worked initially for a Los Angeles dairy farm but later ran a “comptometer,” an early key-driven mechanical calculator, for an industrial company. Fitzgerald grew up within walking distance of numerous movie theaters and developed a passion for film. He attended public high school in Los Angeles and graduated from Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design in 1951.

During 17 years at Pacific Title, Fitzgerald worked closely with many giants of the studio system, including Stanley Kramer, Ray Stark and Herbert Ross, in addition to Jack Warner. Later, in business for himself, he worked on most of Beatty’s movies subsequent to “Bonnie and Clyde,” as well as films by John Hughes, James Brooks, Sidney Pollack, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Redford and Roman Polanski.

Fitzgerald once described the new title designers as “basically movie makers,” producing their own mini-movies that were then attached to the main features. His opening sequence for director Ted Kotcheff’s “North Dallas Forty,” for example, portrays a wounded football player’s painful and seemingly interminable effort to get out of bed. He captured the workaday world for director Colin Higgins’ “9 to 5" with scenes of people running to work, spilling coffee, chasing buses. His credit sequence for Lawrence Kasdan’s “The Big Chill” shows a man being dressed, with the audience unaware until the end that he is a corpse.

Fitzgerald’s opening sequence for Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” was distinctive with its washed-out yellow-on-brown titles, the credits scrolling against a backdrop of diagonal lines and music signaling unmistakably that this will be a journey into the 1930s world of film noir.

Fitzgerald’s opening sequence for Mike Nichols’ “Catch-22" stirred particular acclaim. It begins with a bucolic scene, with the muffled sound of a distant dog barking and chirping birds calling “soft attention to the peace of a sleeping world,” as Newsweek described it. But suddenly the deafening roar of a giant bomber shatters the countryside repose, and at that moment, said the Newsweek review, the movie “threatens to be a masterpiece.” The Times called it a “stunningly cinematic frontispiece.”

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Fitzgerald won three Emmys from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, of which he was a two-term governor representing title designers. He also was a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. During his career he lectured at UCLA and the American Film Institute, and after retirement, taught at ArtCenter College of Design.

Fitzgerald’s marriage to Mary Dunbar ended in divorce. He married Courtney in 1995. In addition to his wife, Fitzgerald is survived by his sons from his first marriage, Eric and Mark; and one grandchild.

After his retirement, Fitzgerald and his wife moved to San Juan Island in the Pacific Northwest, where Fitzgerald took up with a group of elderly men calling themselves the Rusty Zipper Club. The couple later moved to Langley, Wash., on Whidbey Island, to be closer to medical facilities as Fitzgerald’s health faltered.

When it became clear that he likely wouldn’t survive beyond 89 years, the whimsical Fitzgerald said to his wife with a smile, “Well, it was fun while it lasted.”

Merry is a special correspondent


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