John Alvin, who carved a niche for himself in Hollywood as the creator of evocative movie posters that drew generations of viewers into theaters to see films such as "Blazing Saddles," "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" and "Beauty and the Beast," died of a heart attack Wednesday at his home in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He was 59.
In the 1970s when Alvin began his career in cinematic art, the movie poster or "key art" was still the preeminent means of advertising new films. The art appeared on billboards and in newspapers, doing the work now done primarily by movie trailers and television ads.
Alvin's goal was to design posters that "created the promise of a great experience," he once said. Although the poster was based on the movie, it was an entity unto itself, so alluring you had to pay attention -- and head to a theater.
The movie poster became an enduring image and could play a key role in the success of a film, said John Sabel, executive vice president of creative print advertising at Walt Disney Pictures. On more than 100 films, Alvin was the architect of the image.
"There was a reason why 'The Lion King' did the numbers that it did," Sabel said Friday. "There was a reason why 'Hunchback [of Notre Dame]' became a big success. It's because of the images that were produced, and a lot of those were John Alvin's paintings."
Born Nov. 24, 1948, in Hyannis, Mass., Alvin grew up in a military family and spent his childhood in various places until settling in the Monterey Bay area during his high school years.
Art and movies were his passion even in his youth, when he read the newspaper for its movie ads.
The opportunity that launched Alvin's career came a few years after he graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles in 1971. Alvin was working as an illustrator at an animation studio when a friend invited him to work on a poster for the upcoming Mel Brooks comedy "Blazing Saddles," which was released in 1974.
The poster was a standout because of its unusual take: It was serious, yet incorporated zany elements of the film. Inscribed on the headdress worn by Brooks as the Yiddish-speaking Indian chief is the phrase "Kosher for Passover," a joke contributed by Alvin's wife, Andrea, that took "the edge off what was basically serious art."
"Mel Brooks liked it," Alvin said in a 2007 article in the Santa Fe New Mexican. "I didn't look for work for about 15 years after that; it came to me. I just kept getting calls from strangers who asked, 'Are you the guy who did so-and-so film?' "
The poster for "Blazing Saddles," with its "strongly iconographic" imagery, typifies Alvin's work and resonated with movie fans, said Greg Kachel, a longtime friend.
The poster for "E.T." features the bony hand of the alien touching, tip to tip, the finger of his human buddy Elliott and creating a glow. Steven Spielberg is said to have suggested the image, a riff on Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam." The movie poster was a source of pride for Alvin, said his daughter, actress Farah Alvin of New York, who as a child served as the hand model for the poster.
In a career that spanned more than three decades, Alvin worked on such films as "Young Frankenstein," "Gremlins," "City Slickers," "Batman Returns," "The Color Purple" and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. He also created anniversary posters for "Star Wars."
The work Alvin created was so distinctive it gave birth to an adjective, "Alvinesque," said his longtime friend and colleague Federico Tio, with whom Alvin worked on such Disney films as "Beauty and the Beast."
"John always brought this magical, almost romantic quality to his work," Tio said. "His sense of light and capturing a moment was spectacular. . . . Not only was he a great illustrator, he was a great thinker. He was so passionate about his craft."
Alvin contributed design ideas for the recent Disney movie "Enchanted." But with increased use of other forms of advertising, the movie poster has diminished in importance. In recent years Alvin began to focus more on fine art, creating art about the movies rather than advertising.
"With any of my cinematic art, I want the viewer to embrace and relive the magic that we all felt when we go to the movies," he said in a 2006 article in Art Business News.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Alvin is survived by a sister, Suzanne Alvin, of Seaside, Calif.
Services will be private. Memorial donations may be made to the heart program at the Foundation for Vassar Brothers Medical Center, 45 Reade Place, Poughkeepsie, NY 12601, (845) 454-8500.