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Obituary

Maurice Duke; Colorful Movie Producer

November 02, 1996|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maurice Duke, a colorful motion picture and television producer who proclaimed himself the "last of the great showmen," has died. He was 86.

Duke died Wednesday in Los Angeles of complications from heart surgery.

He boasted that he had produced 103 movies and that all were "bad," including the one he rated the worst movie ever made, "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla," in 1958.

"It was so bad," he told The Times in 1990, "it was camp. I got a plaque for it."

Times columnist Al Martinez, an admirer, once called Duke "loud, coarse, insistent, self-promoting and irresistible."

Wearing a trademark blue baseball cap that bore his name, Duke was the centerpiece of a circle that gathered for breakfast every Saturday for about 30 years at Nate 'n' Al's deli in Beverly Hills. Martinez described the weekly scene as "a table that sizzles and spits with a thousand years of wit."

Duke was also the star at a unique party his son and daughter threw for him and his late wife, Evelyn, to mark the 25th anniversary of their divorce. The couple, who had remained close friends all those years, later remarried.

The cigar-chomping, gravel-voiced Duke was stricken with polio as a baby, well before, he always said, "it was popular." His leprechaun personality was a compensation for his disability. Part of Duke's charm was his zest for life despite the leg braces and cane that once caused comedian Joe E. Brown to describe him from the stage as "the only man who walks around with his own Erector set."

"It's the urge to live," Duke said in 1985. "If you wanna die, go ahead and die! Not me. Not the Duke. I'm still after the young broads."

While recuperating from surgery when he was 12, Duke taught himself to play the harmonica--his entree into show business. He won a harmonica contest and began playing professionally for the Loew's theater chain.

Duke joined the Cappy Barra Harmonica Ensemble, which performed on the vaudeville circuit, and when he turned 21 became the band's manager. Among his later clients were several bands and such entertainers as Mickey Rooney and Zero Mostel.

Duke began producing at Monogram Studios and toward the end of his life proudly called himself the oldest active living producer.

Among films bearing his producer credit were "Keaton's Cop" in 1990, "The Twinkle in God's Eye" in 1955 and "The Atomic Kid" in 1954. For TV, he produced such series as "The Lohman and Barkley Show," "Hey, Mulligan" and "Everything's Relative."

Duke is survived by his son, Alan, senior vice president of Walt Disney TV; his daughter, Fredrica, an actress; two sisters, Rose Harriman and Millie Petrushkin, and five grandchildren.

Services are scheduled for noon Sunday at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park, Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles.

The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the Blaloc Foundation Cardiothoracic Unit at UCLA-CT Surgery, P.O. Box 951741, Los Angeles 90095-1741.

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