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Obituary

Walter Mirisch, Oscar-winning filmmaker who produced ‘West Side Story,’ dies at 101

Astute producer hailed as ‘true visionary’ by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; he also helped make ‘Some Like it Hot,’ ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and countless other movies

Walter Mirisch, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, at the organization's headquarters in Beverly Hills on September 16, 1975. (AP Photo/George Brich)
Walter Mirisch, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, at the organization's headquarters in Beverly Hills on September 16, 1975. (AP Photo/George Brich)

LOS ANGELES — Walter Mirisch, the astute and Oscar-winning US film producer who oversaw such classics as “Some Like It Hot,” “West Side Story” and “In the Heat of the Night,” has died of natural causes, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said Saturday. He was 101.

Mirisch died on Friday in Los Angeles, according to a statement from the academy’s CEO Bill Kramer and its president Janet Yang.

“Walter was a true visionary, both as a producer and as an industry leader,” they said, noting he had served as academy president and an academy governor for many years. “His passion for filmmaking and the Academy never wavered, and he remained a dear friend and advisor. We send our love and support to his family during this difficult time.”

Mirisch received the best picture Academy Award for 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night,” and the company run by him and his brothers also produced the best-picture Oscar winners “The Apartment” and “West Side Story.”

Born eight years before the first Academy Awards ceremony, he served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1973 to 1977 and received two honorary Oscars, in 1978 and 1983, for his body of work and his humanitarian efforts.

As a producer, Mirisch aggressively recruited top filmmakers such as Billy Wilder and Norman Jewison, then gave them freedom to craft the movies as they saw fit.

“We offered these filmmakers what they needed,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1983. “Billy could call me up and say: ‘I’d next like to do a picture about so-and-so’ — and that’s all we’d need to know. … We became, in effect, partners with our directors.”

His company’s regular stable of directors included not only Wilder and Jewison, but Blake Edwards and John Sturges. The company also produced movies by John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, George Roy Hill and Hal Ashby.

Mirisch entered the movie business in his teens, advancing from usher to management jobs with a theater chain before going on to production work on low-budget action flicks and Westerns in the late 1940s.

The company he founded in 1957 with his brother Marvin and half-brother Harold was one of the most successful independent production outfits to arise from the old studio system as television cut into movie attendance.

Walter Mirisch arrives at 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival’s Opening Night Gala at the TCL Chinese Theatre on April 10, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Annie I. Bang/Invision/AP, File)

The Mirischs made a string of hits from the 1950s to the 1970s, among them “The Magnificent Seven,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Great Escape,” “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “The Pink Panther” and its sequel, “A Shot in the Dark.”

Their company started with a handful of Westerns before producing 1959’s “Some Like It Hot,” the Wilder comedy with Marilyn Monroe co-starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as cross-dressing musicians running from the mob.

Mirisch was willing to take on unusual projects. A Harvard-trained business executive, he efficiently oversaw the commerce side of things, allowing his filmmakers to concentrate on their movies.

Elmore Leonard — the crime novelist and screenwriter on two Mirisch productions, 1974’s “Mr. Majestyk” and the 1987 TV movie “Desperado” — dedicated his Hollywood satire “Get Shorty” to Mirisch, calling him “one of the good guys.”

Mirisch was also among a handful of filmmakers Sidney Poitier acknowledged in his speech at the 2002 Academy Awards when he accepted an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement.

“Those filmmakers persevered, speaking through their art to the best in all of us,” said Poitier, who starred in Mirisch’s “In the Heat of the Night” and the sequel “They Call Me Mister Tibbs!”

The Mirisch brothers adjusted their management style film by film, depending on the level of oversight they felt a director wanted or needed. In a 1972 interview in the journal “Films and Filming,” Mirisch said some directors worked well as their own producers, while others showed little interest beyond the actual filmmaking.

“We’ve worked with brilliant directors and producer-directors, and I must say that the relationship with each of them has been entirely different,” he said.

Veteran film producer Walter Mirisch, right, receives the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from actor Charlton Heston during the 55th Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles on April 11, 1983. (AP Photo)

A team for most of their careers, the Mirisch brothers also worked in theater. Before joining the Allied Artists production company in the 1940s, Walter worked as a producer and later head of production and Harold and Marvin had administrative jobs.

While at Allied, Walter produced both Westerns and a series of low-budget titles in the “Bomba the Jungle Boy” series that starred Johnny Sheffield, who had played Boy in the “Tarzan” movies of the 1940s.

After his oldest brother, Harold, died in 1968, the surviving siblings continued their company with Marvin as chairman and Walter, the youngest brother, in charge of production. Marvin died in 2002.

Walter Mirisch continued to produce theatrical movies into the 1980s. Although the quality and commercial success of his films generally declined, there were still some hits, including Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe for “Same Time Next Year.” Other films that came late in his career included “Midway,” “Gray Lady Down,” and the 1979 version of “Dracula.” He was also executive producer on a few television projects in the 1990s.

Walter Mortimer Mirisch was born to a Jewish family in New York City on November 8, 1921. After studying at City College of New York, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1942 and a graduate degree in business from Harvard in 1943.

In 1947, Mirisch married Patricia Kahan, who preceded him in death. They had three children — Anne, Andrew and Lawrence.

In lieu of flowers, the family requested donations to the Motion Picture and Television Fund (MPTF).

A memorial service will be held at a future date.

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