Joel Freeman, a veteran producer behind such films as Shaft, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Love at First Bite, has died. He was 95 and passed away Sunday night after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease and lung cancer at his Sherman Oaks, CA home.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Betty, who called him “a wonderful man and entertainer.”
Freeman had more than 100 films, series and movies for television on his long resume. Some of his films included The Tender Trap (1955), the Music Man (1962) and Camelot (1967).
Topping the list were executive producing credits on The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968), starring Oscar-nominated Alan Arkin as the lonely John Singer, a man who cannot hear or speak, and Love At First Bite, which made George Hamilton from curio into pop culture legend.
Freeman received an NAACP Image Award as Producer of the Year for his work on the breakthrough Shaft (1971), the classic blaxploitation classic for MGM. The film remains a staple of the genre, remembered for the Isaac Hayes soundtrack and the vision of director Gordon Parks. Made for $500,000, the film grossed $13 million, making it one of only three profitable films for MGM that year.
Born in Irvington, New Jersey in 1922, Freeman began his MGM career as a messenger. He rose to the production planning office, but then was drafted into the Air Force during World War II. He spent his time in the First Motion Picture Unit, working as a script supervisor and assistant director on training films.
That background helped him become an assistant director at RKO upon his return. He then migrated to Selznick International Pictures, where he worked on The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), The Paradine Case (1947), The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948).
His uncle, Dory Schary, then chief of production at MGM, brought his nephew on board. Freeman worked on Madame Bovary (1949), Battleground (1949), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Blackboard Jungle (1955), Tea & Sympathy (1956) and Something of Value (1957), eventually becoming an associate producer.
Beyond films, he worked on TV series The Californians and Highway Patrol.
Freeman’s impressive work drew the attention of Jack Warner, and he asked him to help with the ambitious production of Camelot. Following that, Freeman produced Francis Ford Coppola’s Finian’s Rainbow (1968).
Survivors include his wife Betty, an actress and singer; his sons Josh and Jeff, the latter a film editor on the Ted films; and step-children Daniel and Kurina.
A memorial service will take place at 1 p.m. on Monday at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary in Culver City. The family asks that donations be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund or to The Entertainment Industry Foundation.