Emmy-winning TV movie and miniseries producer Robert Halmi Sr. has died. At 90, he was still doing what he had loved doing for the past three and a half decades — producing television — until his sudden passing this afternoon in his New York home from a brain aneurysm.
A freedom fighter in his native Hungary, where he had been jailed and sentenced to death twice — once by Nazi invaders, then by the communist regime — Halmi was able to emigrate to the U.S. in 1951, arriving with a Leica camera and $5 in his pocket. He started off as a “diaper photographer,” taking pictures of babies for a diaper service, before becoming one of America’s leading magazine photographers. He then switched to television, becoming one of the most prolific longform producers in the genre’s heyday during the 1980s and 1990s. His more than 200 movies and miniseries included such hits as Gulliver’s Travels, Merlin, The Odyssey and Tin Man. Together, they have earned 136 Emmy Awards (and 480 nominations), as well as Golden Globes, Peabodys, Christophers and Humanitas Prizes.
“I cannot retire, I would go nuts,” Halmi told me five years ago, when he was still jetting around the world to the sets of his movies, with that still camera still around his neck. Recently, he was working on the latest big-scope project, Syfy’s 13-part series Olympus, which started filming three weeks ago for a 2015 premiere.
Halmi loved doing ambitious, big-scale productions based on timeless stories with a strong moral message. He brought to the screen such literary classics as Homer’s The Odyssey, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. He had an affinity for biblical tales, including The Ten Commandments and Noah’s Ark. Halmi also was passionate about social issues, which he tackled in such projects as Human Trafficking and Baby Sellers.
Halmi had just started a new chapter in his career. Two years ago, he left RHI Entertainment, Inc., the company he had founded in 1979 with his son Robert Halmi Jr. The father and son had a bumpy road with RHI, where they built a library of more than 1,000 titles. They sold their company to Hallmark in 1994 and bought it back in 2006, but took on too much debt and eventually declared bankruptcy at a time TV movies and miniseries went out of favor at the networks. Following his 2012 exit from RHI (now Sonar Entertainment), Halmi Sr. launched the Halmi Co. to continue “to do what I always loved the most” just as the longform genre was starting to make a comeback.