Walter Mirisch, former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Oscar-winning producer for In the Heat of the Night, died Friday in Los Angeles of natural causes. was 101. He had been the longest-living Oscar winner.
Mirisch — whose producing credits stretch to the 1940s and also include West Side Story, The Apartment and the 1960 and 2016 versions of The Magnificent Seven — also won a pair of Honorary Oscars: Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1978 and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1983. He also received the Producer Guild of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Motion Pictures in 1996.
He served as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1973-77.
“The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is deeply saddened to hear of Walter’s passing,” noted Academy CEO Bill Kramer and Academy President Janet Yang. “Walter was a true visionary, both as a producer and as an industry leader. He had a powerful impact on the film community and the Academy, serving as our President and as an Academy governor for many years. His passion for filmmaking and the Academy never wavered, and he remained a dear friend and advisor. We send our love and support to his family during this difficult time.”
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Born on November 8, 1921, in New York City, Mirisch did not serve in World War II because of a heart problem, instead relocating to Burbank to work in a plant where planes were manufactured. He began his movie career as general manager of Monogram Pictures since 1945. Soon after, he began producing low-budget films including Bomba, the Jungle Boy (1949) and its first of 11 sequels, Bomba on Panther Island, later that year. He also produced two other Bomba sequels in 1950 and 1952.
Mirisch continued to make mostly B-movies through the 1950s before launching The Mirisch Company, which inked an output deal with United Artists and began of runs of hits for the producer. including the Marilyn Monoe-Tony Curtis-Jack Lemmon romp Some Like It Hot (1959).
The turn of the decade brought The Magnificent Seven. A Hollywood remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, it was directed by John Sturges and starred Yul Brenner, Eli Wallach, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson and James Coburn, among others. The film stiffed in the U.S. but was a smash in Europe and a hit in Asia. It has gone on to be a classic Western.
In 1961, the Mirisch Company produced West Side Story, the Best Picture-winning musical based on the Tony-winning 1957 Broadway show. A modern take on Romeo and Juliet, the film fronted by Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer won 10 Oscars including Best Director for Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.
Mirisch would claim his only competitive Oscar for 1967’s controversial In the Heat of the Night. Starring Sidney Poitier as Virgil TIbbs, a top Philadelphia homicide detective sent to rural Mississippi to investigate the killing of a wealthy industrialist. But Tibbs immediately runs afoul of the odious local sheriff (Rod Steiger).
In the Heat of the Night included a then-shocking scene of Tibbs responding to being slapped by a white man in the Deep South by slapping him back. Poitier’s powerful delivery of a line of dialogue in the film – “They call me Mister Tibbs!” – was a defining moment for the movie and a rallying cry for justice and respect within the culture at large. (The phrase would become the title of the film’s 1970 sequel, also starring Poitier.)
Mirisch accepted the Best Picture Oscar as the pic’s lone producer.
Other Mirisch Company films of the next two decades included such classics as The Great Escape (1963), The Pink Panther (1963), The Fortune Cookie (1966), The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Same Time, Next Year (1978).
Mirsich published a memoir, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History, in 2008.
Steven Spielberg also paid tribute to the late producer today. “Walter cut a gigantic figure in the film industry, and his movies were trailblazing classics that covered every genre, while never failing to entertain audiences around the world,” he said. “He achieved so much in life and in the industry — if you live to be 101 and produced The Apartment, I’d say it’s been a good run — and Walter remained both a gentleman and an ardent advocate of good films, while supporting multiple generations of dedicated filmmakers. Above all, he knew a good story when he found one, and fought tooth and nail to get it on the screen. He loved the Academy as much as anyone in our history, serving four terms as President. I cherished our lunches in the Universal Commissary over the years and he was as generous with his advice as he was with his friendship. I’m both a better director and a better person for having known Walter.”
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