UPDATED: John Calley, the veteran Hollywood movie and TV producer whose long career as a studio mogul helped engineer the comebacks of Warner Bros, United Artists, and most recently Sony Pictures Entertainment, has died after a long illness. He was 81. Soft-spoken, cerebral, and collegial, Calley was the polar opposite of the stereotypical image of a Hollywood mogul as tyrannical bully. In a demonstration of how well liked he was by the entertainment community, he was awarded filmdom’s highest honor when he received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the inaugural Governors Awards ceremony on November 11, 2009. At the time, the Academy recognized “his intellectual rigor, sophisticated artistic sensibilities and calm, understated manner” calling Calley “one of the most trusted and admired figures in Hollywood.” Unable to attend in person due to illness, he recorded remarks that were projected on a giant video screen, characterizing the life of a film studio executive as, ”You’re very unhappy for a long period of time. And you don’t experience joy. At the end you experience relief, if you’re lucky.” In fact, Calley was very lucky and very competent: few men get the chance to lead one studio in a lifetime. Calley led three studios and left a lasting mark on each one.
“John was unique,” former filmmaking partner Mike Nichols said in a statement. “As a studio head he was unfailingly supportive and didn’t try to do the filmmaker’s job. When he believed in someone he trusted and supported him and when very rarely he had a suggestion it was usually a life saver. In fact that’s what he was: a life saver.”
Said Sir Howard Stringer, Chairman/CEO of Sony Corp, “John was more than a brilliant executive. I’m not sure he would even like that title. He was a wonderful raconteur, up there with Mike Nichols, Michael Caine and Peter Ustinov who could hold your attention for hours with rich anecdotes that capture the human dimensions of his beloved film industry; love’s labors never lost as long as he was there to remember them.”
Said Amy Pascal, Co-Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment: “He had a steely business mind and the soul of an artist. His sense of humor about the business never made him cynical or got in the way of his passion for movies and directors. John’s taste may have seemed idiosyncratic but his pulse was unerring. Those are the instincts of a one-of-a-kind executive. He never pandered to the audience, he never accepted conventional studio wisdom and he never lost his enthusiasm.”
Born in New Jersey, Calley joined the entertainment industry at the age of 21, landing a job in the NBC mailroom in New York after serving in the U.S. Army. That job led to positions of increasing responsibility in sales, production and programming during the network’s formative years, with Calley eventually becoming director of nighttime programming. From there, Calley went on to become VP of Henry Jaffe Enterprises, where he was responsible for developing and producing musical entertainment for films. He next moved to Ted Bates Advertising as VP in charge of radio and television programming.
Beginning his career in television production in the 1950s producing such classic series as Mr. Ed, Calley would go on to produce for Filmways pics like The Loved One, The Cincinnati Kid, Castle Keep, Ice Station Zebra, Topkapi, The Americanization Of Emily, and Catch-22. While filming Joseph Heller’s novel of wartime insanity, Calley became identified with a seismic shift in Hollywood’s balance of power, as his official biography notes. “The late 1960s ushered in a new generation of younger filmmakers just as the major studios were discovering the vast potential of the youth market. ‘Kids were kings. After Easy Rider, everything was exploding everywhere,” Calley recalled in a 1999 newspaper interview. ‘We were all young, it was our time, and it was very exciting. The founders were no longer in charge … What had been this rigid, immobile structure had completely come apart, and what was left was a lot of freedom.’”
Calley became head of production, president, and vice chairman of Warner Bros from 1968 until 1981 under the leadership of Ted Ashley and Frank Wells and ownership of Steve Ross. That studio entered a critical and financial heyday with such acclaimed films as Dirty Harry, A Clockwork Orange, McCabe And Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, Enter The Dragon, Mean Streets, The Exorcist, A Star Is Born, What’s Up Doc, Blazing Saddles, The Towering Inferno, Dog Day Afternoon, Jeremiah Johnson, Klute, All The President’s Men, Superman, Barry Lyndon, Chariots of Fire, and Woodstock.
Calley became known for introducing a new level of cool quotient to the studio executive suite: he eschewed suits for blue jeans, and fostered friendly relationships with filmmakers from Stanley Kubrick (who for years was one of Calley’s closest confidantes), to Clint Eastwood and Sydney Pollack to Federico Fellini, among many others. While at Warner Bros, Calley was responsible for all of Kubrick and Eastwood’s films. Calley also was responsible for films released under the First Artists, Orion, and Ladd Company banners.
Following his successful tenure at Warner Bros., Calley, an avid sailing enthusiast, entered semi-retirement, spending his time between Connecticut and Florida. In 1989 he returned to independent filmmaking, partnering with his pal Mike Nichols to produce Postcards From The Edge and The Remains Of The Day (which earned him a Best Picture nomination). But then CAA chief Michael Ovitz became a consultant to Credit Lyonnais, the French bank that owned MGM/UA, and Ovitz offered Calley in 1993 a chance to return to the executive suite as President/COO of United Artists Pictures. At the time the studio was moribund, and Calley started putting a eclectic slate of pictures into production so Credit Lyonnais could dress up MGM/UA for a sale: Goldeneye, (the highest-grossing film in the history of the James Bond franchise), The Birdcage (A U.S. version of La Cage Aux Folles), Leaving Las Vegas which won an Oscar for Nicolas Cage, and Richard III with Sir Ian McKellan.
In 1996, Calley joined Sony Pictures Entertainment as President/CEO. At the time he took over with Amy Pascal, Sony Pictures had suffered huge losses. But then, slowly, the studio began to turn around with the first Spider-Man blockbuster which became a lucrative franchise. The good financial health of the studio today has Calley’s 7-year tenure there to thank for it. Upped to Chairman/CEO, the studio released critical and financial hits like As Good As It Gets, Men In Black, Air Force One, among many others. Under his leadership, Sony’s home entertainment and international television businesses experienced strong growth, and the domestic TV division had hit shows like The King Of Queens and Dawson’s Creek.
After leaving the Chairmanship at the end of 2003, Calley immediately segued into producing Closer directed by his close friend Mike Nichols, which brought Oscar nominations for two of its stars, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen. He also brought Sony several well-known books including Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code which began a film franchise that continues at the studio today. Calley recently produced the television miniseries “The Company,” based on the book by Robert Littel, and was awarded the WGA award for best writing by Ken Nolan.
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