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Obituaries

John Berry; Blacklisted Film Director Relocated Overseas

December 01, 1999|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Berry, a blacklisted Hollywood director who made the classic film noir "He Ran All the Way" and then largely moved his career to Europe, has died. He was 82.

Berry, a prizefighter and actor before he turned to directing, died Monday in Paris after suffering from pleurisy.

He had recently been editing a film adaptation of South African playwright Athol Fugard's "Boesman and Lena," starring Danny Glover and Angela Bassett. Berry had always taken pride in being one of the first outside Africa to direct the anti-apartheid playwright's work, and had directed the original American stage production of "Boesman" in New York in 1970.

Berry's innovative 1990 film "A Captive in the Land," a joint U.S.-Russian production starring Sam Waterston and Alexander Potapov as characters stranded in the Arctic, was well received at film festivals in Telluride, Colo., Paris and Cannes in 1991. At 73, the director had accompanied his less hardy cast (filming was interrupted by the 49-year-old Potapov's heart attack) and crew to Siberia's frozen Laptev Sea to shoot in the precise white light he sought.

"I wouldn't give up my life for anything," Berry told a Newsday writer when the film was presented in Cannes. "I have been a curiously blessed individual despite all . . . I've lived through."

Because of his McCarthy-era experience, Berry became the model for Robert De Niro's character, a hotshot director unable to comprehend the severity of the anti-Communist witch hunt, in Irwin Winkler's 1991 film "Guilty by Suspicion."

Shortly after directing the 1951 "He Ran All the Way," starring John Garfield and Shelley Winters, Berry was identified by director Edward Dmytryk and others as a Communist. Berry directed a documentary called "The Hollywood Ten" to raise money for the defense of that group, including Ring Lardner Jr. and Dalton Trumbo, who were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to divulge their political affiliations.

Berry fled to France to avoid testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His most successful effort financially, in both English and French versions, was the 1959 "Tomango," about a slave revolt, starring Dorothy Dandridge and Curt Jurgens.

Berry directed plays in London and films in Paris, returning in the 1970s to New York, where he directed such television dramas as "East Side/West Side." His best-known American film of that decade was the 1974 "Claudine," starring Diahann Carroll, who earned an Oscar nomination for best actress. Berry also directed "Thieves," starring Marlo Thomas, and "The Bad News Bears Go to Japan," and then returned to France for the remainder of his life.

Born Jak Szold in the Bronx to Eastern European immigrants, Berry performed in vaudeville beginning at age 4. In his late teens, he became prizefighter Jackie Sold, chalking up five victories.

At age 20, Berry acted in free Shakespeare plays on a Depression-era government scholarship until he wangled an audition with John Houseman and Orson Welles' famous Mercury Theatre. Although Berry regarded Welles as his "spiritual father," it was Houseman who paid for speech lessons to tame the young actor's Bronx accent.

It was also Houseman who brought Berry to Hollywood, where he first worked as an assistant to director Billy Wilder. As a Paramount producer, Houseman hired Berry to direct his 1945 film "Miss Susie Slagle's," with Lillian Gish.

Encountering Berry years after he moved to France, Gish asked, "What happened to you? You were so brilliant."

Berry is survived by second wife Myriam Boyer and three children.

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