Walter Mirisch: Producer of 28 Oscar-Winning Films

From a New York Times obit by Alex Williams headlined Walter Mirisch, Pioneering Producer of Canonical Films, Dies at 101″:

Walter Mirisch, a film producer who with his two brothers ran a pioneering independent production company that helped bring to the screen a raft of canonical films, including the Oscar best-picture winners “West Side Story,” “The Apartment” and “In the Heat of the Night,” died in Los Angeles.

His death was announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which he once led.

The Mirisch Company, which Mr. Mirisch founded in 1957 along with his brother, Marvin, and his half brother Harold, grew to be an industry powerhouse, greenlighting films by leading directors — including John Ford, John Huston and Billy Wilder — that were nominated for a total of 87 Academy Awards and won 28.

Mr. Mirisch, who was considered the most artistically inclined of the three brothers, helped guide the company through a time of transition for the industry in the late 1950s and ’60s, when the studio system had lost its grip on Hollywood and the small screen of television was threatening the cultural primacy of the big screen.

The shifting currents in the industry provided a ripe opportunity for a forward-looking producer like Mr. Mirisch, who matched an old-time studio chief’s box-office instincts with a strong commitment to creative freedom and boldly ambitious films. Although he was known as a perfectionist who sweated the details of films through every step of production, he also knew when to step back and let great directors direct.

“All the Mirisch Company asks me is the name of a picture, a vague outline of the story and who’s going to be in it,” Mr. Wilder was quoted as saying in “The Bright Side of Billy Wilder, Primarily,” a 1970 biography by Tom Wood. “The rest is up to me. You can’t get any more freedom than that.”

Mr. Wilder notched the company’s first best picture award with “The Apartment,” a 1960 comedy with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine about an insurance clerk’s quest to climb the corporate ladder by letting his superiors use his pad for illicit trysts.

Affable and unassuming, Mr. Mirisch never fit the cliché of the imperious, dictatorial Hollywood producer. The crime novelist Elmore Leonard dedicated “Get Shorty,” his biting 1990 Hollywood satire, “To Walter Mirisch, one of the good guys.”

Even so, good guys do not last long in Hollywood without producing hits. The Mirisch Company delivered, cycling through Hollywood’s many genres — its films included the ambitious, star-studded western “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), the World War II adventure epic “The Great Escape” (1963) and the film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971), as well as enduring comedies like “Some Like It Hot” (1959) and “The Pink Panther” (1963).

“You cut the pattern to fit the cloth,” Mr. Mirisch said in a 2013 interview with, a Canadian film site, referring to his diverse assortment of films.

His commitment to “inform” also meant tackling the pressing issues of the day, as with “In the Heat of the Night,” Mr. Jewison’s 1967 film about a Black detective from Philadelphia (Sidney Poitier) who helps the bigoted police chief (Rod Steiger) of a small Mississippi town investigate a murder.

“Before we made the picture, I was told by financiers, ‘You will start riots in the South with this picture,’” Mr. Mirisch recalled in a 2004 interview with The Los Angeles Times. “I said if it doesn’t play in the South, it doesn’t play in the South. What it has to say is so very important that the picture has to be seen.”

Walter Mortimer Mirisch was born in Manhattan, one of two sons of Max Mirisch, a tailor from Krakow, Poland, and Josephine (Urbach) Mirisch.

With his father’s business struggling, the family moved to Milwaukee in 1940. Mr. Mirisch earned a degree in history from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1942, followed by a graduate degree from Harvard Business School. Unfit for military service because of a heart ailment, he worked as a technical writer at a bomber factory in Burbank, Calif., in the later years of World War II.

After the war, Mr. Mirisch, a movie buff, wrangled a job working for the general manager of Monogram Pictures, which specialized in B movies. He nagged his boss for a chance to produce a film. “My argument was simply that I could do it better than the people who were then doing it,” he recalled in a 2021 interview with OnWisconsin, an alumni magazine for his alma mater. Inspired by the hit Tarzan movies, he made an early splash with his own variation, “Bomba the Jungle Boy” (1949).

By the time he was 29, he was the head of production at Monogram, where his brothers were also working, and in 1956 he produced a movie that came to be regarded as a science fiction classic, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” A year later, he and his brothers formed the Mirisch Company — later renamed the Mirisch Corporation — to produce films for United Artists, beginning his rise to Oscar-winning force in the industry.

Mr. Mirisch served four terms as president of the Motion Picture Academy, starting in 1973. He also won a rare trifecta of sorts from the organization: the best-picture Oscar as well as two honorary Oscars, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, recognizing a career of distinguished work.

“Walter cut a gigantic figure in the film industry and his movies were trailblazing classics that covered every genre, while never failing to entertain audiences around the world,” his friend Steven Spielberg said in a statement following Mr. Mirisch’s death. “He achieved so much in life and in the industry — if you live to be 101 and produced ‘The Apartment,’ I’d say it’s been a good run.”

Alex Williams is a reporter in the Times Style department.

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