Alan Ladd Jr. dies; Oscar-winning producer and studio boss greenlighted ‘Star Wars’

Alan Ladd Jr. in 1975.
(David F. Smith / Associated Press)

Alan Ladd Jr., an Oscar-winning producer and former studio boss who, as a top executive at 20th Century Fox in the 1970s, was best known for greenlighting George Lucas’ landmark blockbuster “Star Wars,” has died at his home in Los Angeles.

Ladd died early Wednesday, daughter Amanda Ladd-Jones, who directed the documentary “Laddie: The Man Behind the Movies,” wrote on the film’s Facebook page. He was 84. No cause was given.

Once described as “one of Hollywood’s favorite sons,” Ladd was the namesake of Alan Ladd, the legendary star of the 1953 classic western “Shane.”


The shy and laconic Ladd Laddie, as he was known, was one of Hollywood’s most likable and respected movie executives and producers.

A former talent agent who became an independent producer in London in the late 1960s, Ladd became was named vice president of creative affairs at 20th Century Fox in 1973. Three years later, he was appointed president of Fox’s feature film division.

At the studio, Ladd reportedly was so enthused at viewing an early, smuggled print of “American Graffiti,” the 1973 Universal Pictures release directed by Lucas, that he leaped at Fox’s opportunity to do the young filmmaker’s next film movie: “Star Wars.”

“Laddie believed in me when no one else did and gambled on a young kid with a crazy idea for a science-fiction adventure — something that wasn’t exactly marketable at the time,” Lucas told Variety in 2007.

Recalling his meeting with Lucas in a 2008 interview with the Montreal Gazette, Ladd said: “He was going on about faraway galaxies and sand people and special effects, and frankly I didn’t have a clue what in the world he was talking about. … But I just hoped like hell he knew what he was talking about.”

Released in 1977, “Star Wars” became an overnight cultural phenomenon and one of the highest-grossing pictures in history.


“My biggest contribution to ‘Star Wars’ was keeping my mouth shut and standing by the picture,” Ladd told Variety, recalling that he ignored a research report that said “the worst words to use in a title are ‘Star’ and ‘War.’”

During Ladd’s tenure as president at Fox, the studio released hits such as “Alien,” “Julia, “The Turning Point” and “An Unmarried Woman” — as well as bombs such as “At Long Last Love” and “The Blue Bird.”

“With his own personal taste and style,” Ladd “has dominated the studio since 1976 like no other film company chief in recent history,” a Times story noted in 1979.

That was the year that Ladd and the two senior production executives under him — Jay Kanter and Gareth Wigan — left Fox and formed the Ladd Co., an independent production company financed by Warner Communications Inc.

“I just couldn’t take it at Fox anymore, with [Chairman and Chief Executive] Dennis Stanfill and his corporate ‘management by objectives’ crap,” Ladd recalled.

During the early 1980s, the Ladd Co. produced films such as “Body Heat,” “The Right Stuff,” “Blade Runner,” “Night Shift” and “Police Academy.” And, in conjunction with Warner Bros., it obtained North American distribution rights to “Chariots of Fire,” which won a best-picture Oscar.


But in the wake of a number of commercial failures, including the high-budget “The Right Stuff,” Warner Bros. severed its deal to finance and distribute the Ladd Co.’s films in 1984.

In 1985, Ladd was named president and chief operating officer of MGM/UA Entertainment Co.; a year later, he became the company’s chief executive and chairman of the board of directors.

He later served stints as chairman and chief executive of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, president and chairman of Pathé Entertainment and chairman and chief executive of MGM-Pathé Communications before re-establishing the Ladd Co. in 1993.

Early on, the low-key Ladd earned a reputation for having a laid-back management style and a penchant for risk-taking.

“He had a wonderful instinct for commercial movies, as well as those that aren’t commercial but had a place in the marketplace,” longtime associate Jay Kanter said in 2007. “And he treated everybody on a very equal basis, no hierarchy. You could walk into his office at any time.”

“In the business of fast talkers,” a 1990 Los Angeles Times story noted, “Ladd is legendary for his reserve.”


As The Times reported, one executive recalled a meeting at which Ladd communicated only by hand signals. And another executive said Ladd once responded to a lengthy film pitch by simply saying, “No.”

Indeed, one top Hollywood deal maker called him the “least dynamic person I’ve ever met.”

Yet, the story said, Ladd commanded unquestionable loyalty, and it quoted one associate, who said: “I would rather not die for Alan Ladd, but I would cheerfully kill for him.”

In 1996, when Ladd accepted an Oscar as one of the three producers of “Braveheart,” the best picture winner, his words were characteristically brief: “I’d like to thank my family. Thank you.”

To which Richard Donner, a director who got his start with Ladd, joked to The Times: “I never heard Laddie say so many words in my life.

“Really, I wanted to choke him. Ninety-seven percent of the people in that audience know Laddie and they love him. I think a lot of us wanted him to stand up there for a moment longer and let us applaud him for finally getting something he deserves.

“There are snakes in this business, and then there’s Alan Ladd Jr.”

He was born Alan Walbridge Ladd Jr. on Oct. 22, 1937. His parents were divorced when he was 2, and his father reportedly spent little time with him.


“I wasn’t a celebrity kid,” Ladd told Variety in 2007. “I was a Valley kid.”

After his divorce, Ladd Sr. married his agent, Sue Carol, and started a second family. Laddie was a teenager before he began living in his father’s Holmby Hills estate, according to a 1990 Times story.

Despite growing up around Hollywood’s top stars and spending a lot of his time at the movies, Ladd told The Times in 1996 that he never wanted to be an actor.

“Their life was like living in a prison,” he said. “Back then, you didn’t have TV stars, so film stars were even bigger. They couldn’t go anywhere.”

In 1963, after a stint in the Air Force and briefly working in his stepfather’s business, Ladd became an agent at Creative Management Associates. His boss was renowned agent Freddie Fields, and his clients included Robert Redford and Judy Garland.

“Judy Garland was no walk in the park, I’ll tell you that,” Ladd said. “A little crazy. She’d call at all hours saying, ‘I cut my wrists, you’d better come over right away.’ She just wasn’t easy.”

He said he just “sort of fell into” producing in the late 1960s.

“It wasn’t that hard,” he said. “You just have to be moderately intelligent and get along with people. And remember, in the end, it’s the director’s ballgame. He calls the shots.”


Even his being “pathetically shy and quiet by nature” worked to his advantage. “I listen and observe,” he said, “and I don’t try to be the man of the hour.”

McLellan is a former Times staff writer.