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BOOK REVIEW

Fade in: a Hollywood good guy

I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History alter Mirisch University of Wisconsin Press: 450 pp., $29.95

May 29, 2008|Kevin Thomas | Special to The Times

Walter Mirisch has long been one of Hollywood's most respected producers. His career has spanned more than six decades, and he has played a major role in the development of many important local institutions as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He has been laden with honors but through it all has remained a gentleman with a modest, warm demeanor.

Mirisch's engaging memoir, "I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History" is exactly the kind of book anyone who has had the privilege of knowing Mirisch over the decades would have expected of him. It is unpretentious, straightforward and is suffused with a sustaining love of family and of filmmaking. He takes an honest pride in his accomplishments and accolades while sharing the credit with his collaborators but takes full responsibility for the inevitable failures and disappointments that beset all filmmakers.

He is forthright about his difficulties with such stars as Steve McQueen, Peter Sellers and Dustin Hoffman without belaboring them but expresses heartfelt appreciation of his many enduring collaborations and friendships, especially with actor Joel McCrea, blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and with Sidney Poitier, who starred in one of his most cherished productions, "In the Heat of the Night" -- and who wrote a graceful foreword to this book, as did writer Elmore Leonard, who has called Mirisch "one of the good guys."

The Mirisch Co., which was a partnership of Walter Mirisch with his late brothers Harold and Marvin, flourished in the '60s and into the '70s and beyond. Its most illustrious association, spanning 15 years, was with Billy Wilder, who under the Mirisch aegis made such classics as "Some Like It Hot," "The Apartment" and "Irma La Douce." Mirisch had such respect for Wilder that he remained loyal to the director through his declining fortunes; the opportunity for Wilder to do a remake of "The Front Page" for Universal enabled them to part ways amicably.

Born in Krakow, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Mirisch's father Max emigrated in 1891 as a teenager to New York, where he eventually became a custom tailor with an upscale clientele but was hard hit in the Great Depression. Hard times only strengthened loving family ties, and it's clear that the Mirisch brothers' ability to unhesitatingly look out for each other and their parents was key to their subsequent great success in Hollywood. (Typically, they included their oldest brother Irving, who was in the business of supplying candy to movie theaters, an equal share of the stock in their production company.)

It was Harold, then a chief film buyer for RKO theaters, who at the end of World War II put Walter in touch with Steve Broidy, general manager of Monogram Pictures. As Broidy's assistant, Mirisch learned every aspect of filmmaking on an efficient B-picture level, and eventually Harold and Marvin ended up at Monogram as well.

They struggled mightily to take Monogram, renamed Allied Artists, into the big leagues, but were well-prepared to launch their own company in 1957 in association with a reorganized United Artists headed by Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin. For years the Mirisch Co. would flourish under enviably amicable conditions and would forge notable associations with directors John Sturges ("The Magnificent Seven," "The Great Escape"), Norman Jewison ("The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming," "In the Heat of the Night," "Fiddler on the Roof") and Blake Edwards ("The Pink Panther," "Shot in the Dark"). Ironically, the Mirisch Co. would have its biggest hit with the World War II epic "Midway" (1976) after it left UA for Universal. They won best picture Oscars for "West Side Story," "The Apartment" and "In the Heat of the Night."

Mirisch explains how he and his brothers made their key deals, and in doing so reveals what it takes to be a successful producer -- a mixture of sound business sense, an intuition of what appeals to audiences, and an instinct for talent. The Mirisches understood that taking chances was essential to achieving success even though it involved risking failure. They always aspired to quality and sophistication but balanced their production schedule with solid commercial attractions. Walter Mirisch makes no secret that the disappointments, especially those films he made with high hopes, could be devastating.

At 25, Walter Mirisch married an attractive Kansas City, Mo., girl, Pat Kahan, and they raised three children in their home near UCLA. Until sidelined by a long illness that finally claimed her life in 2005, Pat Mirisch was always at her husband's side at industry functions. She was warm and witty, slim and elegant in designer gowns, a lively free spirit.

At 86, Walter Mirisch remains lean and active -- and still hoping to fulfill his long-cherished dream of making "La Brava," a film noir from a novel by his friend Elmore Leonard.

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Kevin Thomas reviews movies for The Times.

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