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Obituaries

Mel Bourne, 79; Production Designer

January 17, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Mel Bourne, a three-time Academy Award-nominated production designer who worked on seven Woody Allen films, has died. He was 79.

Bourne died Tuesday of heart failure at New York Presbyterian Hospital, said his son Timothy.

In a five-decade career that included production design work for theater, television, commercials and feature movies, Bourne earned his three Oscar nominations for art direction for Allen's "Interiors" (1978, with Daniel Robert), Barry Levinson's "The Natural" (1984) and Terry Gilliam's "The Fisher King" (1991).

Bourne launched his career as a feature film production designer -- and began his seven-movie collaboration with Allen -- with "Annie Hall," the offbeat, 1977 romantic comedy.

In addition to "Interiors," Bourne provided visually distinctive designs for Allen's "Manhattan," "Stardust Memories," "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," "Zelig" and "Broadway Danny Rose."

"He was a terrific art director and a wonderful guy," Allen said in a prepared statement. "He made wonderful contributions to my films."

Timothy Bourne said his father enjoyed the collaborative aspect of working with Allen, "and the ability to contribute to the creative process."

"He and [cinematographer] Gordon Willis and Woody Allen were like a triangle. He really enjoyed that intellectual stimulation," Timothy Bourne said.

Among Bourne's other movie credits are "Windows," "Thief," "Still of the Night," "F/X," "Manhunter," "Fatal Attraction," "Cocktail," "Rude Awakening," "Reversal of Fortune," "Man Trouble" and "Indecent Proposal."

He also was the production designer on director Michael Mann's pilot for the hit 1980s TV series "Miami Vice," a crime show whose color scheme became as famous as star Don Johnson's beard stubble and hip wardrobe of pastel sports jackets and T-shirts.

"You can blame all the pink and sea-foam green rooms on my father," said Timothy Bourne, a film producer based in Wilmington, N.C.

In a 1997 interview with the New York Daily News, Bourne explained his role as a production designer.

"My job is to either build or choose real-life sets and then decorate them with furnishings, colors, textures," he said. "A movie has a look, a visual personality. It's a collaborative effort."

Good writers, not directors, are what attracted him to projects, he said.

"My job always starts with the script," he said. "If I don't like the script, I don't do the movie. Simple as that. Obviously, the visuals are important, but I don't get inspired without a good script."

In describing how he worked, Bourne said that after he accepted a job, he reread the script and made notes for an "emotional level or tone" and compiled a list of the sets, determining which ones need to be built and which can be found in existing locations.

He then would make his sketches, look at photographs of locations and work with the director and director of photography on set furnishings, art and color scheme.

Regardless of the film, however, Bourne often managed to place the same single item somewhere in the background: a copy of Robert Ludlum's "The Bourne Identity."

Born in Chicago on Nov. 22, 1923, Bourne grew up in New Jersey and New York. He earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Purdue University.

After serving in the Army in World War II, he pursued his love of theater by landing a $21.40-a-week job as an apprentice scenic artist and prop man at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J.

Accepted at the Yale School of Drama, he studied scenic design on the GI Bill and met a guest lecturer -- Broadway stage designer Robert Edmund Jones -- with whom he began an apprenticeship.

While working in the theater, Bourne became the designer on early television shows ranging from "Howdy Doody" and "The Goldbergs" to "The Hallmark Hall of Fame" and "The Goodyear-Philco Playhouse."

He moved on to movies in 1957 as an associate art director.

He was assistant art director on the 1962 picture "The Miracle Worker," which was followed by many years of working in commercials until Allen gave him the opportunity to design "Annie Hall."

In addition to Timothy, Bourne is survived by two other sons, art director Tristan of Los Angeles and Travis of East Hampton, N.Y.; and five grandchildren.

A memorial will be held in the spring in New York City.

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