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The Late Great John Calley: Businessman with Soul of Artist, Life Saver

by Anne Thompson and Sophia Savage
September 13, 2011 9:47 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood


Longtime Hollywood producer and studio executive John Calley has died after a long illness. He was 81. While at Warner Bros. in the 1970s (as production chief, president, and vice chairman), the controversial and groundbreaking movies Calley supervised included Alan Pakula's All the President's Men, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, William Friedkin's The Exorcist and Don Siegel's Dirty Hairy.

A witty conversationalist ("The problem of making a comedy with John is that he was usually funnier than the actors," said Buck Henry), Calley enjoyed telling colorful behind-the-scenes stories of working with mavericks like Kubrick. He was a supportive mentor to many in the industry, from producer Lucy Fisher to Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal, who said:

John Calley was more than a mentor and boss he was the most extraordinary and generous friend. He had a steely business mind and the soul of an artist. ... He never pandered to the audience, he never accepted conventional studio wisdom and he never lost his enthusiasm. John was my guiding light. He taught me everything."

Among his producing credits are The Remains of the Day, Catch-22 and Closer, the latter two directed by long-time friend Mike Nichols, with whom he reteamed on Postcards from The Edge (1990) after a ten-year hiatus from the industry during the 1980s. Nichols states:

"As a studio head he was unfailingly supportive and didn’t try to do the filmmaker’s job. When he believed in someone he trusted and supported him and when very rarely he had a suggestion it was usually a life saver. In fact  that’s what he was: a life saver."

In the 1990s, Calley went from MGM/United Artists, where he revived the James Bond franchise, to Sony Pictures Entertainment, where he became president during the studio's production of Men in Black and Spider-Man. After retiring from Sony (where memorial services will soon be held), he continued to produce the likes of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, among others. A selection of trailers is below; Variety collects industry reaction here.

In 2009, the Academy honored Calley with the Irving G. Thalberg producers Award.

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