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Frank Capra Dies; Directed 'Wonderful Life'

September 04, 1991| From a Times Staff Writer

Frank Capra, the multiple Academy Award winner whose everyman heroes symbolized the American spirit triumphing over mercenary or venal big business and big government, died Tuesday at his desert retirement home. He was 94.

Capra, a widower, died in his sleep at 9:30 a.m. at his condominium in La Quinta near Palm Springs, according to his son Tom Capra, executive producer of NBC's "Today Show."

The famous director, who won a life achievement award from the American Film Institute in 1982, suffered a series of minor strokes several years ago and had been under 24-hour nursing care.

Capra "died peacefully in his sleep. He was where he wanted to be--at home in La Quinta," Tom Capra said.

Survivors include another son, Frank Jr. of Malibu, a daughter, Lucille of Findlay, Ohio, and 10 grandchildren.

Capra retired from movies in 1961 and his name was almost unknown to a generation of audiences.

But many of his films--including his Academy Award winners, "It Happened One Night," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "You Can't Take It With You"--retained their standing as classics, often being shown on television. Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" profoundly influenced Steven Spielberg and other current filmmakers.

His films of the 1930s--such as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Lady for a Day," "Broadway Bill" and "Lost Horizon"--offered hope to America during the Depression.

"You have recognized and helped us recognize all that is wonderful about the American character," then-President Ronald Reagan said when Capra won the American Film Institute's prestigious award almost a decade ago.

In accepting the award, Capra said, "The art of Frank Capra is very simple: It is the love of people."

On Tuesday, the former President said:

"Frank Capra's films stirred the moral and political conscience of American moviegoers, and his movies will forever be revered as American classics."

Tom Capra said Tuesday that his favorite quotation from his father's 1982 acceptance speech was about bravery: "Don't follow trends. Start trends. Don't compromise. Believe in yourself because only the valiant can create, only the daring should make films, and only the morally courageous are worthy of speaking to their fellow man for two hours and in the dark."

James Stewart, whose role as George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life" was one of the most memorable in his long career, issued the following statement through his publicist: "Frank Capra will always have a very special place in my heart. I think this is true for the motion picture industry and true for the millions of people who saw his pictures."

Cartoonist Walter Lantz, whose friendship with Capra dated to 1927, when both men worked for Mack Sennett, said: "We used to kid each other about who would be the pallbearer at the other's funeral. I guess I'm elected."

Peter Falk, who received an Oscar nomination for his role as a bumbling hood in Capra's last film, "Pocketful of Miracles," said the director "represented a spirit that was part of this country that has vanished or gone out of style.

"He was a populist," Falk said. "He really felt that people were essentially decent if you provided the proper environment.

"I probably share this with about 80 million other Americans when I say his pictures were an indelible part of growing up in America," Falk said.

"Aside from his talent as a director, he was a most understanding and kind man," said Frank Sinatra, who starred in Capra's 1959 film, "A Hole in the Head," and was a neighbor.

Angela Lansbury, who co-starred with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in the 1948 film "State of the Union," credited Capra with giving her her first big break in Hollywood.

"He was a loving, compassionate, funny man," she said.

George Stevens Jr., a filmmaker and founder of the American Film Institute, literally grew up around Capra. His father, Capra's partner, used to tell a story about Capra's wartime demeanor, which Stevens said epitomized his "self-confidence bordering on cockiness."

"Frank showed up at the Pentagon in his major's uniform and he walked into a room full of generals and colonels, wearing their uniforms and medals," Stevens said. "He said, 'Fellas, we gonna talk about motion pictures?' One of them said yes. So Frank said, 'Then I sit at the head of the table.' "

Sheldon Leonard, who played Nick the bartender in "It's a Wonderful Life," called Capra the master of sentimental storytelling.

"Frank was the most skillful user of sentiment I've ever known in terms of entertainment," Leonard said. "He used it the way a great chef uses garlic. "

In a Frank Capra picture, the good guy always won.

"And that, by God, is how it ought to be," Capra said in a 1960 interview. "Movies should be a positive expression that there is hope, love, mercy, justice and charity.

"A filmmaker has the unrestricted privilege of haranguing an audience for two-hour stretches--the chance to influence public thinking for good or for evil.

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