Walter Mirisch, the last of the three Mirisch brothers who produced or oversaw a series of highly acclaimed films in the 1950s and 1960s, including Oscar winners for best picture “The Apartment”, “West Side Story” and “In the Heat of the Night,” as well as comedy classics like “Some Like It Hot” and “The Pink Panther,” has passed away at the age of 101.
Mirisch, who also had a strong presence in the Hollywood community and served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1973 to 1977, died Friday in Los Angeles of natural causes, according to a statement from the academy.
“The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is deeply saddened to learn of Walter’s passing,” academy director Bill Kramer and academy president Janet Yang said in a statement. “Walter was a true visionary, both as a manufacturer and as an industry leader. He was a great influence on the film community and the Academy and was our President and Governor of the Academy for many years. His passion for filmmaking and the Academy never wavered, and he remained a close friend and advisor. We send our love and support to his family during this difficult time.”
In total, films with the stamp of the brothers Walter, Harold and Marvin Mirisch won dozens of Oscar nominations. The little “studio without walls,” as Harold Mirisch called it, grew and shrunk as needed and was so family-owned that the brothers were sometimes called “the Mirii.” They were among the very first ‘independents’.
“I don’t know if there’s been a brother team that has done as much for this industry as the Mirisch brothers have,” veteran Paramount producer AC Lyles once said.
Mirisch films earned dozens of accolades, including Best Director nominations for Billy Wilder (“Some Like It Hot,” “The Apartment”), Robert Wise (“The Sound of Music,” “West Side Story”), Jerome Robbins (also “West Side Story”) and Norman Jewison (“In the Heat of the Night”, “Fiddler on the Roof”). Jewison’s “The Russians are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!’, the first of several films he directed and/or produced with the Mirisches, also received a Best Picture nomination.
The Mirisches also worked with many other great directors, including John Ford (“The Horse Soldiers”), John Sturges (“The Magnificent Seven”, “By Love Possessed”, “The Great Escape”), George Roy Hill (“Toys in the Attic,” “Hawaii”), John Huston (“Sinful Davey”) and Blake Edwards (“The Pink Panther”).
Actors also thrived in Mirisch films, including Rod Steiger, the 1967 Academy Award winner for Best Actor for “In the Heat of the Night,” and George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, who won Academy Awards for supporting roles in the 1961 film. version of Broadway’s West Side Story.
In general, Harold was the dealer with the big Hollywood personality, Marvin was the quieter money man, and Walter had the greatest interest in the artistic side of filmmaking.
As C. Robert Jennings wrote of the Mirisches in the Los Angeles Times in 1967, directors loved working with them because the brothers created “an awesome miasma of agents, properties, movie rights, salaries, star temperaments, contract negotiations, lawsuits, legal endorsements, logistics, invoices, budgets, ballyhoo, release dates and release cities.
The Mirisches thrived because, as Harold Mirisch once said, “There’s an air of creative freedom here.”
Wilder, who made more than half a dozen films with the Mirisches, once called their approach “an astonishingly simple one.”
“Once you’re out of the gate, the Mirisches give you free rein and never use the whip,” Wilder told The Times in 1967. “If you win a race, they get to wear you the wreath. And if you break your leg, they don’t shoot you – they let you do it yourself.
Jewison, who made some of his best films with the Mirisches, echoed that thought many years later.
“They left me alone, they left William Wyler alone, they left Billy Wilder alone, they left John Sturges alone,” Jewison said in 2005. He added, referring to the production notes that often irk filmmakers in Hollywood: “You didn’t get many notes” from the Mirisches.
Walter Mirisch personally produced many films, including ‘The Magnificent Seven’, ‘Two for the Seesaw’, ‘Toys in the Attic’, ‘Hawaii’, ‘The Hawaiians’, Midway’, ‘Same Time, Next Year’ and ‘ Romantic comedy.” But by far the most honored of the films for which he is credited as a producer is Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night.”
Based on the novel by John Ball with an Oscar-winning script by Stirling Silliphant, Sidney Poitier starred as a Philadelphia attorney who helps a bigoted southern sheriff (Steiger) solve a murder in a small Mississippi town.
“It was really hard to get that made,” Mirisch told The Times in 2004, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held a retrospective of Mirisch films that included “In the Heat of the Night.” “People don’t really realize it was made right in the center of the civil rights revolution.” Some of the film’s financiers feared the film could spark riots in the South, but Walter Mirisch refused to be warned.
“I said if it’s not playing in the South, it’s not playing in the South,” he said. “What it has to say is so important that the picture has to be seen, and there are plenty of places in this country where people will see it and want to see it.”
However, as a concession to Poitier’s concern for his safety in the Deep South, all but a few “Heat’s” scenes were filmed on location in Sparta, Illinois, rather than Mississippi.
But far from a polemic, “In the Heat of the Night” is a humane and curiously humorous tale of two men forced to come face to face with each other and their own prejudices in the service of justice.
“What appealed to me was the relationship between these two men on opposite sides of the spectrum,” said Mirisch. He said making that movie was one of the highlights of his career.
Born on November 8, 1921, in New York City, Walter was the first of the Mirisch brothers to make his way to Hollywood. The son of a tailor, he worked his way through school as an usher in several theaters, attended the City College of New York, and received his degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration before going to the west coast moved. His half-brother, Harold, who already worked in the film industry in distribution for Warner Bros. in New York, introduced him to Hollywood studio production people.
“I loved movies and I loved the idea of making them and turning your dreams into film,” Mirisch told The Times in 2005.
Beginning in the 1940s, Walter Mirisch produced B-movies for Monogram Pictures, including a series of ‘Bomba the Jungle Boy’ films. Soon he was joined by Harold at Monogram and a few years later by Marvin.
When Monogram became Allied Pictures, the Mirisches moved to A Pictures and helped produce William Wyler’s “Friendly Persuasion” (1956), starring Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire as the parents in a Quaker family during the Civil War, and Wilders” Love in the Afternoon” (1957), a romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn and Cooper as lovers of May and December.
But neither movie was a big money maker for Allied Artists. In 1957, as the studio system declined, the three brothers went out on their own to produce or “package” their kind of films without the pressure to justify profit.
However, instead of putting stars under contract as the studios did, the Mirisches made deals with filmmakers, giving them a home to do their best work. The Mirisch Co. kept overheads low because it didn’t have expensive studio lots to maintain. It was housed on Samuel Goldwyn’s property and the brothers rented what they needed to make a particular movie. Their films were distributed by United Artists.
The first productions of the Mirisch Co. (later the Mirisch Corp.) were the Joseph Newman movie, “Fort Massacre” (1958), about an embittered cavalry commander who leads a patrol through Apache territory, and the 1959-60 NBC television series “Wichita City.” Both played Joel McCrea.
Soon, the Mirisches were deeply involved in films such as ‘The Magnificent Seven’, ‘Cast a Long Shadow’ and ‘By Love Possessed’. When “West Side Story” became the first screen adaptation of a Broadway musical to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and win the Oscars in 1961 with a total of 10 awards, the Mirisches were firmly established as a major creative force in the film industry. .
A few years after Harold’s death in 1968, Walter and Marvin Mirisch moved to Universal Pictures, where their productions included Jack Smight’s “Midway” in 1976 and Robert Mulligan’s “Same Time, Next Year” in 1978.
Marvin Mirisch passed away in 2002 at the age of 84.
Walter Mirisch was the first person to receive all three of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s highest awards: the 1967 Academy Award for Best Picture as producer of “In the Heat of the Night”; the 1977 Irving G. Thalberg Prize, given to a producer, and the 1988 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. He was governor of the Academy for 15 years.
Mirisch also served as president of the Center Theater Group, which includes the Taper and the Ahmanson in downtown Los Angeles and the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City.
Mirisch is survived by his children Anne, Andrew and Lawrence Mirisch, his granddaughter and her husband, Megan and Craig Bloom, and his great-grandsons Emery and Levi Bloom. His wife of 57 years, Patricia, died in 2005.
Luther is a former Times staff writer.