A writer, a director, and a producer are crawling across the desert without water, dying of thirst. They look up and sticking out of the sand is a nicely chilled bottle of apple juice. Before the writer and director can grab it, the producer is on his feet, unzips his pants and starts peeing into the bottle.
“What’re you doing?” the writer and director cry.
“Fixing it!” says the producer.
So, that attitude in mind, when I tell you John Calley died last Tuesday at age 81, and if the name is unfamiliar and I try to enlighten you by saying he was a producer and – worse – a studio executive, no doubt at least a few of you who regularly patronize this site out of your love for film and filmmakers might shrug and say, “So what?” A dead studio exec? That’s like that other joke, the one about lawyers:
“What do you call 5000 lawyers on the bottom of the ocean?”
“A good start.”
Studio executives. Ew. Often referred to with sneery repugnance as, “The Suits.” Ugh. Five thousand of them on the bottom of the ocean would be a great start. They’re the Enemy, the Others, the antithesis of the creative impulse embodied by the noble filmmaker, the antichrist to the artistic spirit. Anybody who thinks Hollywood just plain, flat-out sucks with its pandering, market research, four-quadrant development and fear of the new, horror at the original, and absolute paralyzing terror at the untried, points a finger quivering with rage at the office suites and shouts, “J’accuse!”
So. Who cares some old, ex-studio biggie died?
Well, not that it means much, but I do.
I became a fan of Calley’s after reading Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, a dizzying, sometimes hysterical, sometimes heart-breaking account of the movie industry’s bumpy transfer of power from the moguls of old to a new, young generation of studio chieftains in the 1960s/70s.
Jersey City wasn’t exactly a bastion of the arts. It had been a mill town back in Calley’s day, rough-edged, blue collar – was, still is. If Calley picked up any creative sensibilities in those days, it was the art of the deal from his dad, a used car salesman.
What his background told me was Calley – the erudite, scholarly, well-spoken production chief who screened Kurosawa and Fellini and Trauffaut flicks for his execs – was a self-made man. He learned what he learned and knew what he knew because he’d seeded and cultivated and watered that gray matter between his ears, and considering what he’d learned and knew, you couldn’t not be impressed by the accomplishment.
But just as impressive to me was that he was that rarest of rare gems in studio executive circles: he was one of the few studio bosses who’d actually made movies; good movies, smart movies. By the time he was tapped to head up production at Warner Bros. in 1969, he’d spent a few years at Filmways working as a producer or associate producer on a number of films, some of them quite impressive, like Blake Edward’s brilliant, bitter antiwar comedy The Americanization of Emily (1964, associate producer); Norman Jewison’s memorable tale of a young poker hustler on the rise, The Cincinnati Kid (1965, associate producer); and Mike Nichols’ grand and ambitious if flawed rendering of Joseph Heller’s classic antiwar novel, Catch-22 (1970). In fact, Calley was on the set of Catch-22 when he got the call from Ted Ashley, a one-time talent agency honcho who Warners’ new owner – Steve Ross and his hodge-podge of funeral homes and parking lots called Kinney National Service – had put in charge of the studio, giving him a free hand to clean house. Once the house was cleaned, Ashley tabbed Calley to be Warners’ new production chief.
It was a unique time in Hollywood; the old rulers had faded away, a new breed was replacing them eager to re-write the rule book on movies and movie-making, and Calley caught the wave. “We were all young,” he told The Los Angeles Times in a 1999 interview, “it was our time, and it was very exciting.”
This is from Biskind’s book:
“Under Calley, Warners became the class act in town…He was so hip he didn’t even have a desk in his office, just a big coffee table covered with snacks, carrot sticks, hardboiled eggs, and candy. Lots of antiques.”
Even at the time, Calley stood apart from the rest of the new execs. According to Biskind, under Calley the production offices became a place of jeans and sandals with “…the aroma of marijuana wafting down the first floor.” He wasn’t a glitzy, self-promoter like Paramount’s Robert Evans; in fact, according to friend Candice Bergen, while he was always quite charming and could be great company, he was also somewhat withdrawn, spending his weekend nights at home, in flannels and a nightcap reading scripts. He had a soft spot for expensive cars and yachts, and yet generally lived a life –as producer Tony Bill said at a recent memorial service – “unattached to material things.” Bill recalled Calley buying a 65-foot Swedish yawl, spending a few years fixing it up, then, after enjoying it a while, selling it off. He enjoyed things; he didn’t amass them.
Calley was a director’s exec and he started reaching out to filmmakers who interested him, among them: Sidney Pollock who turned out Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and The Yakuza (1974); John Boorman (Deliverance, 1972); William Friedkin (The Exorcist, 1973); Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets  and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore ); Robert Altman (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, 1971), and Stanley Kubrick to whom Calley gave a remarkable carte blanche, granting him a free hand to pursue his own projects, take as long to develop them as he wanted, and retain full creative control.
He generally stayed out of the way of his filmmakers, believing in giving them the freedom to indulge the creativity he’d hired them for. He would complain about the Hollywood penchant – then and just as much now – for hiring a filmmaker for his unique talent, then turning around and “…(doing) everything you possibly can to neutralize him so that he can’t do what you’ve hired him to do in the first place.” An impressive number of the signature movies from one of American movies’ most expressive periods came from Warners thanks to Calley’s laissez-faire attitude: Woodstock (1970), Klute (1971), All the President Men (1976), Chariots of Fire (1981), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Dog Day Afternoon (1975)… The list goes on.
He loved fine cinema, he loved fine filmmakers, but Calley was not oblivious to the fact he had a studio to run. As much as he liked a certain kind of cinematic artistry, he also had a feel for what was going to mint money, like Mel Brooks’ hysterical Blazing Saddles (1974), or disaster pic The Towering Inferno (1974), or kicking off the superhero movie craze with Superman: The Movie (1978). And, like his wheeling-dealing dad, he knew how to cut a deal, joining with 20th Century Fox on Inferno so the two studios – which had been developing similar high-rise disaster projects – wouldn’t mutually destruct in a head-to-head competition; or milking Dirty Harry (1971) through four sequels. Better: correctly reading the tea leaves left behind by Star Wars (1977), and understanding that the opportunity George Lucas’ mega-hit had provided wasn’t in jumping on the sci fi bandwagon, but in tapping into that same mix of boomer nostalgia/budding fanboy geekdom which he did with Superman.
Sitting with Peter Bart and Peter Guber on AMC’s Sunday Morning Shootout in 2003, Calley remembered “…making Dirty Harry’s for $3-3.2 million. That was a great business. It was almost impossible to lose money.” That, perhaps was the key. Costs weren’t as extravagant as they are today, and Calley rarely went the big budget route (Superman and Exorcist were rare exceptions). In the main, he forged an admirable balance between his creative wish list and hard dollar earners, bringing both prestige and financial stability to Warners throughout his tenure.
Calley’s read on the audience of the time was astute enough that he managed to hit – with enviable regularity – that sweet spot where fine filmmaking and commercial success walked hand in hand. Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), Boorman’s Deliverance, and Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon were not only critical and commercial hits, but were actually among the top eighty-odd earners of the 1970s.
And then, another rarity of rarities. In an industry in which doors are something executives usually get pushed out of, Calley left Warners of his own volition. By his own admission, after 13 years at the studio he was burned out. “I wasn’t enjoying it,” he would say later, “I had lost myself.” So, he walked away, not only from Warners, but from the business, spending the next 10 years traveling, sailing (which was one of his passions).
A decade away from the business and he was recharged, but when he came back – as a producer partnered with his old Catch-22 collaborator and friend, Mike Nichols – he wasn’t completely sure of his footing. The business had changed, the audiences had changed. “I made dopey mistakes,” he later appraised, “like Tank Girl (1995), not getting it, thinking, ‘Is this the world I’ve re-entered? Does everybody have a safety pin through their tongue now?”
But whatever Calley’s doubts were, mixed in with Tank Girl were more notable efforts like Postcards from the Edge (1990, directed by Nichols) and the Merchant/Ivory classic, Remains of the Day (1993) for which he received his only Oscar nomination.
Now firmly back on the movie scene again, Calley was asked to head up the United Artists side of a floundering MGM/UA. The once great pair of studios were now one broke company desperate to establish some kind of credibility as a still viable movie-making enterprise. He revived the James Bond franchise with Pierce Brosnan taking over the iconic role in Goldeneye (the series’ highest-grossing installment). The studio’s Americanized version of French farce La Cage aux Folles became the $124 million-grossing hit, The Birdcage (again, it was Nichols at the directorial helm). Never giving up his penchant for artier fare, Calley’s MGM/UA also turned out critics’ darlings like Leaving Las Vegas and Sir Ian McKellan’s Richard III.
In 1996, Sony Pictures Entertainment (which owns Columbia Pictures) brought him on board to head up the company which was also going through rocky times. Again, for seven years, Calley mixed big earners (Spider-Man, 2002) with more substantial fare (As Good As It Gets, 1997), and sometimes rolled the company’s dice on something delightfully, bizarrely, exhilitaringly unique (Men in Black, 1997). By the time he retired from SPE, the company was again on firm footing.
He went back to producing and as per the usual, blended big box office (The DaVinci Code  and sequel, Angels and Demons ) with more substantive fare (the Mike Nichols-directed drama, Closer ).
He was not flawless. There are those who thought they’d caught a raw deal from him, and certainly Calley turned out his share of clunkers, both as a producer (turgid historical drama Fat Man and Little Boy, 1989) and as a studio boss (Sony’s bloated Godzilla remake, 1998). And let us not forget Tank Girl. But if you view a life on balance, John Calley’s moviemaking cred weighs overwhelmingly to the positive, and for that the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences gave him, in 2009, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. The MPAA cited his “…intellectual rigor, sophisticated artistic sensibilities and calm, understated manner,” and declaring him “…one of the most trusted and admired figures in Hollywood.”
But it was for those years at Warners I was a fan; that pitch perfect blend of the commercial and the compelling, the entertaining the engaging. I never saw anything about him that said this, but I suspect that in his years at SPE and afterward, seeing at how audiences and tastes had changed, he must’ve – must have – missed those days when today’s art house fare could be a mainstream hit.
He said he’d had two passions: to make movies and to run a studio. I suppose his great strength was his ability to combine both sensibilities in each passion, having a nose for a hit as a producer, and providing filmmakers not with a boss but with a colleague in a studio’s front office.
And now he’s gone. Maybe, sadly, a kind of moviemaking with him. But for those of you who might still not see cause to bow your head just a little out of respect because he was one of The Suits, remember: he didn’t wear one.
– Bill Mesce