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Obituaries

Max Rosenberg, 89; Longtime Producer of Classic Horror Films

June 17, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Max Rosenberg, a veteran movie producer best known for cult horror classics such as "Tales From the Crypt" and "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors" as well as the early rock 'n' roll movies "Jamboree" and "Rock, Rock, Rock!" has died. He was 89.

Rosenberg, president of Rearguard Productions, died Monday in a Los Angeles hospital after a brief illness, said Julie Moldo, the film company's vice president.

In a more than 60-year movie career that began as a distributor of foreign films in New York, Rosenberg produced about 75 movies, the majority of them modestly budgeted horror, supernatural and science fiction tales.

After he teamed with his longtime producing partner Milton Subotsky in the mid-1950s, the pair scored their first horror hit in 1957 with "The Curse of Frankenstein," starring Peter Cushing. Made in England in association with Hammer Films for $500,000, it made $7 million and kicked off a revival of gothic horror films.

The producing team also made four music films, including "It's Trad, Dad!" a 1962 comedy directed by a young Richard Lester; and "Rock, Rock, Rock!" a 1957 drama starring a teenage Tuesday Weld and featuring the music of Frankie Lymon, Chuck Berry and Johnny Burnette.

"It took nine days to make," Rosenberg recalled in a 2000 interview with the Hollywood Reporter. "The exciting thing was collecting the music. As for the picture itself, there's not much to commend it. It's just a bunch of songs connected to a stupid plot."

Rosenberg and Subotsky were probably best known for their anthology horror films -- featuring four or five stories revolving around a central theme -- made after they formed Amicus Productions in England in 1962. Among their offerings: "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors," "The House That Dripped Blood" and "Tales From the Crypt."

"They established themselves as one of the leading purveyors of supernatural, horror and suspense films during that period," Dennis Bartok, head of programming at the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and a friend of Rosenberg's, said Wednesday.

With Amicus Productions, Bartok said, "they worked with an amazingly talented pool of actors, including Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Joan Collins. They also helped foster the careers of younger actors like Donald Sutherland and Terrance Stamp and they often worked with excellent writers like Robert Bloch."

What made Rosenberg unique, Bartok said, "was a combination of commercial savvy -- he was always able to tap into the zeitgeist, whether it was rock 'n' roll in the late '50s or the explosion of drive-in movies and supernatural and horror films ... with excellent literary taste. Max was probably the best-read person I ever met."

Indeed, Bartok said, "Max didn't just make horror and supernatural films. He was very proud of the fact that he made one of the first films adapted from Harold Pinter's work, 'The Birthday Party' in '68, one of William Friedkin's first directorial efforts."

Rosenberg also took pride in his advertising savvy, Bartok said. "The tag line he was most proud of was for 'City of the Dead,' " Bartok said.

After renaming the 1960 British film "Horror Hotel" for American release, Bartok said, "Max came up with the tag line, 'Just Ring for Doom Service.' "

A small, slender man given to smoking cigarillos and wearing English tweeds, handmade shirts and silk ties, the dapper Rosenberg was outspoken and courtly.

"Max was a very old-school gentleman and not really the kind of guy you'd expect made his name in horror pictures," director Joe Dante, a friend of Rosenberg's, said Wednesday.

"He was very erudite and knew the business inside and out."

Dante, a fan since high school in the early 1960s, said of Rosenberg's British horror pictures: "There was a literate quality to those films that I don't think you see too much anymore."

Until he was hospitalized last week, Rosenberg continued to work in his small, cluttered Rearguard Productions office on Wilshire Boulevard, where he regularly showed up at 6:30 a.m. -- or earlier.

"He put in a full day," said Moldo, who worked with Rosenberg for 27 years.

The son of a furrier, Rosenberg was born in the Bronx in 1914. A graduate of City College of New York and St. John Law School in Jamaica, N.Y., he was a lawyer when he entered the film business as a distributor of foreign art films in 1939.

In 1945, Rosenberg formed Motion Picture Ventures in partnership with Joseph E. Levine, a distribution company that handled art-house foreign-language imports such as "The Blue Angel" and "Open City."

Rosenberg launched his career as a producer in 1954, initially teaming up with Subotsky to make a series of 39 do-it-yourself television science programs for children called "Junior Science," which won numerous awards and was shown worldwide.

In recent years, Rosenberg was honored with a tribute by the American Cinematheque and appeared several times at screenings of his films at the annual Festival of Fantasy, Horror & Science Fiction.

Rosenberg is survived by his companion, Arlene Becker; daughters Elizabeth Rumelt and Naomi Rosenberg; and three grandchildren.

Donations may be made to the Isabel W. Rosenberg Story Hour, Jerusalem Foundation, 60 E. 42nd St., Suite 1936, New York, NY 10165.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. June 26 in the auditorium at Park La Brea in Los Angeles.

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