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Film Director Mervyn LeRoy Dead at 86

September 14, 1987|TED THACKREY Jr. | Times Staff Writer

Oscar-winning producer-director Mervyn LeRoy, the one-time San Francisco newsboy who set the tone of Hollywood movie making for 40 years with such films as "Little Caesar," "The Wizard of Oz," "Quo Vadis" and "Gypsy"--and co-founded Hollywood Park race track--died Sunday at his home in Beverly Hills.

He was 86, and members of the family said heart ailments had kept him bedridden for the last six months.

"Mervyn went peacefully, in his sleep," said Kitty LeRoy, his wife of 41 years. "His heart just gave way. He was dead when I came to wake him at 8 a.m. It was a good kind of death after a good kind of life.

'Good and Sweet Man'

"None of us could have wanted anything better for a good and sweet man. . . ."

In addition to his wife, he leaves a daughter, Linda Jacklow, a son, Warner LeRoy, and five grandchildren. Funeral services are pending.

One of the most successful products of the pre-World War II studio system, LeRoy's career was a reflection of the strengths of that system--while betraying almost none of its weaknesses.

He had been a full-fledged director at First National (later Warner Bros.) for only three years when his handling of "Little Caesar" and "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" boosted Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni to stardom--and set the tone of fast-paced toughness that dominated Warners' products for a decade.

Later, at MGM, he presided over a series of lush, romantic vehicles that enhanced the careers of such stars as Vivien Leigh and Greer Garson, while displaying a total mastery of such diverse forms as musicals, historical spectaculars, action films and even children's fantasy.

He won an Oscar in 1942 for directing "Random Harvest," received an honorary Oscar three years later for producing a short subject, "The House I Live In," and was selected for the Irving Thalberg Memorial career achievement award in 1975.

"And through it all," studio mogul Jack Warner told a magazine interviewer in the 1960s, "he never seemed to have a box-office disaster. Maybe one or two that didn't do as well as they might--but no disasters. And mixed in there, several of the biggest winners of all time.

"Add the fact that you can't find anyone in town to call him a son of a bitch--and you've got a real giant.

"There's nobody like him and never will be. . . ."

In addition, LeRoy helped found the Hollywood Turf Club--which built Hollywood Park--five decades ago and served for three decades as president of the corporation that controlled the race track.

It was LeRoy who introduced Ronald Reagan to then-actress Nancy Davis. In a statement issued Sunday by the White House, the President and Mrs. Reagan called him "a special part of our lives.

"It was he who introduced us. And he was always a precious friend," the statement said. "Mervyn LeRoy was one of the pillars of the entertainment industry, responsible for some of the finest motion pictures ever. He was one of the greatest directors and producers of all time, knowing exactly how a scene should be and knowing just what to say to get his actors to make it right."

"He had a touch that was like no other," Lane Curtiz said in a 1981 appreciation. "The name 'Mervyn LeRoy' on the film meant that your intellect was not likely to be assaulted and your sense of fitness would emerge intact. There was an essential rightness about all that he did.

"You knew the film he made would be as decent and elegant as the man himself."

However, his beginnings were not elegant at all.

Born Oct. 15, 1900, in San Francisco, LeRoy was the son of prosperous importer-exporter Harry Levy, whose business was wiped out in the earthquake and fire of 1906.

"My father broke his heart trying to build it all back," LeRoy recalled in later years, "and when he died in 1910, it was root hog or die. I went to work selling newspapers on the street and completed my schooling at that level.

"But I was lucky--the place I picked out to sell the papers (and had to fight someone just about every other day to keep) was in front of the Alcazar Theater. Talking to people there and listening to things that were said, I got the idea that there might be a better way to make a buck, so I entered the amateur-night contest."

His winning impersonation of Charlie Chaplin got him started on a vaudeville career as part of an act called "Two Kids and a Piano," which ended far short of the Palace. He wound up stranded in New York.

"But I liked the work a lot better than selling papers," he said, "and I decided to stay in show business."

A cousin who had already switched from vaudeville to the movies--whose name was Jesse L. Lasky--staked LeRoy to a rail ticket from New York to Hollywood and put him to work in the costume department of a studio called Famous Players-Lasky (later to be known as Paramount). LeRoy spent the next few months trying to make up his mind about whether he liked the town and the business.

"I decided I did," he said. "But I also decided I was in the wrong job."

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