Good Life

The men behind the movies

You’ve never heard of Walter Mirisch, but today’s film industry would be unimaginable without him.

Walter Mirisch, together with his brothers Harold and Marvin, formed the Mirisch Co. in the late 1950s to “package” directors, scripts and actors, then sell the resulting project to major distributors such as United Artists. Of course, that’s largely how it’s done today, but when Mirisch produced such films as “Some Like It Hot” in 1959, his ideas for concentrating filmmaking energies on two or three big budget films at a time provided a new, streamlined business model for an industry coping with the death of the studio system.

The Mirisch Company’s popular and critical successes (the company won Best Picture Oscars with “The Apartment,” “West Side Story,” and “In The Heat of the Night”) brought the rest of the industry around. The Mirsches carpentered together elaborate profit participation deals for stars and particularly directors, turning some of the latter, including Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards, and John Sturges, into the producers of their own films, at last finding the autonomy they had strained for under the autocratic old studio bosses.

Mirisch’s family was active around the fringes of the movie industry during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, working for minor producing companies, managing theaters in the South and the Midwest, and even running a theater candy company. Walter broke in as a theater usher in Milwaukee. In the late 1940s, still in his 20s, he landed a job as a producer (and later head of production) at Monogram Pictures, a Poverty Row minor studio. His films at Monogram wouldn’t make anyone forget Citizen Kane — his greatest success was the “Bomba the Jungle Boy” series, a seedy Tarzan knock-off — but he learned the intricacies of film distribution.

At last on their own, Mirisch and his brothers produced hits such as “The Great Escape,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming!”, “The Pink Panther,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and “The Magnificent Seven” as well as a few stunning failures, such as Billy Wilder’s disturbing sex comedy “Kiss Me, Stupid.” In the process, the Mirisch Co. also produced cartoons, series television, and television movies.

Several of their properties, such as “The Pink Panther,” helped invent the franchise film as an industry practice. The company contributed to the 1960s vogue for widescreen epics with films such as “Hawaii” and “The Thousand Plane Raid.” But the Mirisches also produced a few smaller films like the 1970s “The Landlord” that were harbingers of a new, socially-aware cinema.

By the mid-1970s, age and new economic realities in their industry brought the Mirisches’ career to a comfortable close.Mirisch’s writing style is limpid, sometimes even dull; he throws around adjectives like manhole covers. That’s fitting, for this is not a burn-the-bridges revenge memoir. Instead, it’s a gentle look back at a life in the movies by one of the most genuinely likeable people in the film industry. His longstanding working friendships with mercurial characters such as Wilder attest to his patience and fairness in an industry where the smiling hand often holds the knife.

Mirisch tells us that Steve McQueen resented the screen time other characters received in his films, and insisted on writers being brought in to fatten his own parts in retaliation. Mirisch accommodated him on “The Great Escape” by creating a subplot built around McQueen’s character that added 18 minutes to the completed film and thereby reduced the number of nightly showings of the film by half — and McQueen stopped bellyaching.

The very opposite of a self-centered, tyrannical producer, Walter Mirisch was the anti-Harvey Weinstein, the un-Don Simpson.

Hollywood film production gets all the journalistic ink and air time, and yet the movies are driven by the economics of distribution. “I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History” is a fine historical primer to that arcane, essential realm of media.

Kevin Hagopian teaches film history and theory and cultural studies at Penn State.