Ivan Passer, ‘Cutter’s Way’ director and Czech New Wave pioneer, dies at 86

Ivan Passer at Hugo's restaurant, a favorite dining spot in West Hollywood, in October.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

As Ivan Passer told it, it was by a stroke of chance and act of friendship that he became a film director.

It was 1964 in Czechoslovakia, and Passer was making a name writing screenplays. A friend, Vaclav Sasek, had written a movie treatment that the Prague film studio offered to buy if he could find someone to direct it, so he asked Passer.

“I didn’t want to,” Passer recalled in 2018. “I had a good life as a screenwriter, no responsibilities. So I wasn’t too eager.”

But his friend was newly married and needed money for furniture. “I said, ‘So tell them I’ll direct it,’” said Passer, who died of pulmonary failure Thursday at his vacation home in Reno at age 86. “They paid him for the treatment, and I forgot about it,” assuming the studio would too.


A few months later, the studio called for an update on the film he was directing. Passer hadn’t so much as read the treatment, but he, Sasek and another writer hammered out a script. The resulting movie, 1965’s “Intimate Lighting,” is regarded as Passer’s masterpiece and one of the high marks in Czech cinema.

The story of the film’s genesis, and his telling, is quintessential Passer: an unassuming, even reluctant filmmaker of uncommon talent, a generous spirit and a superb storyteller.

Alongside his boyhood friend, two-time Oscar-winning director Milos Forman, Passer, recently profiled in The Times, was one of the pioneers of the Czech New Wave movement of the 1960s. Together they defected from Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion, and both went on to celebrated careers in America.

Over half a century in two countries, with vastly different cultures and filmmaking languages, Passer directed a steady series of much-admired and often underappreciated films of economy, fidelity, humor and subtle beauty, among them “Cutter’s Way,” “Stalin,” “Haunted Summer” and “Born to Win.”

His movies are a study in the “invisible camera” approach to filmmaking — a subtle observing presence that reflected the director’s own aversion to unnecessary attention. Quotidian human foibles and struggle against corrupt forces are constant themes, with a focus on a quiet integrity and dogged humanity that often lie hidden. “Intimate Lighting,” in particular — a story of minimal plot about two musician friends visiting in the Bohemian countryside — recalls the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, a Passer favorite, though suffused with Czech-flavored humor.

A longtime Los Angeles-area resident and former USC film professor, Passer was born in Prague on July 10, 1933. He was separated from his parents during World War II — the Nazis sent his father to a labor camp and pursued his mother and other Slovak separatists into the mountains. Passer told a story — characteristically tragicomic — his mother had told him about how the group, pushed to the brink of starvation, discussed whom they might eat first, and deemed her the best prospective meal.

Young Ivan, who’d been tramping the countryside with his hunting dog and Russian army rifle for much of the war, afterward was sent to the King George boarding school, housed in a 13th-century castle in the spa town of Podebrady, east of Prague. His classmates included an extraordinary roster of rebels and future luminaries, including playwright, dissident and Czech President Vaclav Havel — and a notable group of future filmmakers, among them Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski and animated-film creator Paul Fierlinger.

Another was a big kid of high intelligence with a fiercely competitive streak, named Milos Forman. Passer and Forman struck up a friendship that would shape and transform their lives.

The two later attended the Prague Film Academy, which in the late 1950s and early 1960s became the incubator of the Czech New Wave. At a time when, in writer Josef Skvorecky’s words, “Czech audiences laughed at the dramas and slept through the comedies,” the New Wave shattered conventions and introduced Czechoslovak cinema to the world.

Leading the revolt was Forman, and Passer was his chief ally. Passer was co-writer, assistant director or both on all of Forman’s Czech films, including the commercial and festival hits “Loves of a Blonde” and “The Firemen’s Ball,” both Academy Award nominees.

Passer’s own “Intimate Lighting,” as well as his exquisite short, “A Boring Afternoon,” were also New Wave triumphs, both winning international awards and launching his career as a director.

The two filmmakers and their movement were at their apex by August 1968, when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. Their movies banned, Passer and Forman fled the country a few months later, restarting their careers in New York through the 1970s. Passer moved in 1981 to Los Angeles, and he lived in the area the rest of his life.

Ivan Passer and Milos Forman, fourth and fifth from left, with friends in Prague in May 2007. Third from left is Miroslav “Mirek” Ondricek, cinematographer on most of Forman's films.
(Irena Vodabova)

Throughout his filmmaking life, Passer had a genius for identifying talent.

The Czech New Wave movies, with their focus on capturing real Czechs in real-life situations, frequently relied on nonactors in prominent roles. Too often, as Passer would tell it, it was a day or two before shooting and he and Forman had yet to cast an important part. Time and again, Passer would venture out — to planned shooting locations, town squares or streetcars — and find exactly the right person, whose presence would transform the movie. Several of Passer’s finds, including Jan Vostricil, who performed memorably in the early Forman films and Passer’s “Intimate Lighting,” went on to successful movie careers.

For Passer’s American debut, “Born to Win” of 1971, he cast an unknown Robert De Niro in one of his first roles. “Silver Bears” of 1978 features a then-obscure Cybill Shepherd, as well as a budding young comedian named Jay Leno.

When Passer was preparing to make 1981’s “Cutter’s Way,” United Artists demanded he cast a star in the main role. The studio wanted Richard Dreyfuss. Passer did not. But he agreed to meet in New York with Dreyfuss, who was appearing at Shakespeare in the Park. Passer came away impressed — with the actor John Heard. Passer knew he had his man, and at his insistence, the studio relented. Heard’s performance as Alex Cutter, a profane, incendiary disabled Vietnam veteran, is a force of nature; he commands the screen and defines the movie, one of Passer’s best and a late-century classic.

“It’s so strange,” Passer said. “I see hundreds of people, and nobody would impress me, and then I see the right one, and I know right away. I don’t know why, what it is. But I was never wrong. Knock on wood. Never wrong.”

Forman, who died in 2018, recalls in his memoir “Turnaround,” co-authored with Czech American writer Jan Novak, a scene from the boarding school days in Podebrady Castle. The boys were engaged in a late-night game of knife-throwing in their dorm, after the teachers had gone to bed. The idea was to hurl the knife at a wooden door, winning points each time it stuck. Ivan was a champion knife-thrower, and this night he was on a spectacular run. So excited were the boys witnessing Ivan’s string of expert tosses that they didn’t notice that Professor Krista, a large man who prided himself as the school disciplinarian, had entered the room.

Ivan was caught red-handed, but didn’t flinch, or even try to hide the knife. Krista demanded Ivan tell him who else was involved in the illicit game. “Nobody,” Ivan said at once, and Krista responded with a clout that knocked the boy to the ground. Ivan returned to his feet, and Krista told him he had one more chance to tell him who else was throwing the knife at the door. “Nobody,” came the answer fast, met by another clout.

“And I realized,” Forman writes, “we had a goddamn hero among us.”

It’s a story Passer would never tell. When asked about Forman’s recollection, he said only, “That’s amazing he remembers that. I almost forgot about it.”

Upon learning of Passer’s death, Novak emailed a brief tribute Friday: “‘He was the best one of us all,’ Milos Forman used to say about Ivan Passer. … I took it to mean that Ivan was the best of Forman’s formidable circle of collaborators … but he might have been talking about that whole generation of filmmakers of the Czech New Wave. Ivan certainly was the most intuitive and musical of the bunch.”

Passer’s last film was in 2006, but he continued to write scripts and pursue film projects almost to the end. After a heart procedure in 2018, Passer returned to good health, until illness overtook him in recent weeks.

He is survived by Anne Passer, his wife of nearly three decades, sister Eva Limanova and two children.