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George Jenkins, 98; won an Oscar for `All the President's Men' art direction

April 12, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

When Carl Bernstein first saw "All the President's Men," the 1976 movie based on his and fellow Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's best-seller chronicling their legendary investigation of the Watergate scandal, he was amazed at how accurately production designer George Jenkins had re-created the Post newsroom on a soundstage at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank.

"It was absolutely faithful; he had re-created it down to the trash on our desks," Bernstein told The Times this week. "It was a remarkable achievement."

Indeed, Jenkins' reproduction of the Post's sprawling, fluorescent-lighted newsroom included desks topped with the same type of government directories, phone books, calendars, copy paper and assorted other flotsam that littered the desktops of real Washington Post staffers.

He even included actual pieces of their own junk mail that had been shipped to Burbank.

"It was," said Bernstein, "a verisimilitude I never quite expected from the movie business."

Jenkins, who won an Academy Award for best art direction/set decoration, along with set decorator George Gaines, for "All the President's Men," died in his sleep Friday at his home in Santa Monica, his family said. He was 98.

Jenkins, who was equally well-known as a Broadway scenic and lighting designer, first gained prominence for his work on the Broadway hit "I Remember Mama" in 1944.

Among his many other Broadway credits from the '40s through the '70s are "Bell, Book and Candle," "The Bad Seed," "Two for the Seesaw," "The Miracle Worker," "A Thousand Clowns," "Wait Until Dark" and "Sly Fox."

Producer Samuel Goldwyn, who had seen "I Remember Mama" on Broadway, invited Jenkins to Hollywood to work as an art director on what became Jenkins' first film: "The Best Years of Our Lives," director William Wyler's 1946 drama about returning World War II veterans that won the Academy Award for best picture.

Among Jenkins' more than 30 movie credits as an art director or production designer are "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," "The Bishop's Wife," "Wait Until Dark," "The Subject Was Roses," "Klute," "1776," "The Paper Chase," "The Parallax View," "Funny Lady," "Comes a Horseman," "The China Syndrome," "Starting Over" and "Sophie's Choice."

Throughout the '50s, Jenkins focused on work in theater and live television. But when director Arthur Penn, with whom he had worked on "Two for the Seesaw" and "The Miracle Worker" on Broadway, directed the 1962 movie version of "The Miracle Worker," Penn enlisted Jenkins to be the art director.

"From the first time I work ed with him, we understood each other," Penn, who first worked with Jenkins on a live "Philco TV Playhouse" production in the '50s, said this week. "So we went on to many, many projects together," including the films "Mickey One" and "Night Moves" and, on Broadway, "Sly Fox."

"He was a master of utilizing stage space," Penn said. "For instance, on 'Two for the Seesaw,' there were two movable small stages, each of which contained a revolving stage. It was a nine-scene play, and we had different scenery for all nine scenes.

"George was also a lighting designer. He was one of the few who designed the sets and lit them."

Jenkins, Penn added, "was an elegant gentleman. We would go on sometimes working through the night, and George would be sitting there sipping his tea that he brewed himself."

Born in Baltimore on Nov. 19, 1908, Jenkins attended architectural school at the University of Pennsylvania before designing stage productions for the Philadelphia theatrical group Plays and Players for several years.

His award-winning work in Philadelphia led to his becoming assistant to acclaimed Broadway set designer Jo Mielziner in the late 1930s.

Jenkins' last film credit was "Presumed Innocent," a 1990 crime-drama directed by his frequent collaborator Alan J. Pakula, who directed "All the President's Men."

In a 1978 interview with Film Comment magazine, Jenkins recalled that when he and Pakula made their first visit to the Washington Post to do research for "All the President's Men" his "heart sank" when he got his first look at the fifth-floor newsroom.

"I realized that it was virtually an impossible job," he said. "It was so enormous -- I saw a thousand details just at a glance. I had rebelled for years against the Hollywood practice of faking things, so I knew that if I really wanted to do the room properly it had to get about 200% of my attention.

"You might say that my reproduction of the Post newsroom was in the spirit of the film: undercover work. The real reporters weren't pleased with all these movie people snooping around their office, so I'd sneak in at night to make my notes, sketches and photographs."

To add to the newsroom set's realism, Jenkins had photographs taken of each desktop at the Post so that the desks could be duplicated in Hollywood.

He also had cardboard boxes placed next to each Post reporter's desk and had the reporters toss in letters and magazines that they would normally throw out. In three months, the filmmakers had 75 boxes of material, which was later placed on the appropriate desks on the set.

"I think," Jenkins said years later, "the Oscar that I did eventually get was partially due to the fact that I got a hell of a lot of publicity on that newsroom, much more than you would think it was worth."

Jenkins was divorced from his first wife, Barbara. His second wife, television producer Phyllis Adams Jenkins, died in 2004. He is survived by his daughter from his first marriage, Jane Jenkins Dumais; three granddaughters; and two great-granddaughters.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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