Longtime Studio Chief John Calley Dies at 81

John Calley, who led three major Hollywood studios and produced or championed a constellation of hit films, from Catch-22 to The Da Vinci Code, during a legendary career that spanned more than 50 years, died Sept. 13. He was 81.

Memorial arrangements for Mr.Calley are currently being planned and will be held at Sony Pictures Studios. In lieu of flowers, the family requests those who wish to honor his memory do so with a donation to their favorite charities. He is survived by his daughter Sabrina Calley and step-children Emily Zinnemann, David Zinnemann (Amy) and Will Firth from his marriage to Meg Tilly.

Mr. Calley formerly served as chairman and chief executive officer of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which he joined in 1996 following successful terms as studio chief at Warner Bros. in the 1970s and MGM/United Artists in the 1990s.

Known as much for his business acumen as his creative instincts, Mr. Calley was a low-key, erudite and respected executive whose relationships touched every corner of the industry. Mr. Calley remained active in the film and entertainment business until his death. He most recently produced the worldwide blockbuster hit The Da Vinci Code, among other recent projects.

Mr. Calley was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in 2009 with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. At the time, the Academy recognized “his intellectual rigor, sophisticated artistic sensibilities and calm, understated manner” calling Mr. Calley “one of the most trusted and admired figures in Hollywood.”

“John was unique. As a friend he was always there and always funny. He made life a joy for those he loved,” said Mike Nichols. “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.”

“The problem of making a comedy with John is that he was usually funnier than the actors,” said Buck Henry.

Said Sir Howard Stringer, Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President of Sony Corporation, “John Calley will be remembered in the history of Hollywood as an extraordinary studio chief, who ran three studios with a maximum of taste and a minimum of tyranny. Even today, the quality of his movies still have contemporary resonance. The Remains of the Day and A Clockwork Orange demonstrate vividly the twin contrasts of British society that together explained the riots. Catch-22 and The Americanization of Emily capture the unsettling ambivalence towards war you might expect from a former American soldier. Men In Black and Spider-Man revealed he could partner with a younger executive like Amy Pascal and discover a whole new audience. But John was more than a brilliant executive. I’m not sure he would even like that title. He was a wonderful raconteur, up there with Mike Nichols, Michael Caine and Peter Ustinov who could hold your attention for hours with rich anecdotes that capture the human dimensions of his beloved film industry; love’s labors never lost as long as he was there to remember them. His sense of humor made us delighted when we shared his adventures, and envious when we did not. Even in his lengthy illness he never lost his charm or ever felt sorry for himself. Life without his friendship will be so much less joyous. His generosity of spirit made those of us lucky enough to work with him feel we had a loyal and unique companion for life. We did.”

“John Calley was more than a mentor and boss he was the most extraordinary and generous friend,” said Amy Pascal, Co-Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment. “He had a steely business mind and the soul of an artist. His sense of humor about the business never made him cynical or got in the way of his passion for movies and directors. John’s taste may have seemed idiosyncratic but his pulse was unerring. How could one person have championed All The President’s Men, Blazing Saddles, The Exorcist, Dirty Harry, Klute, A Clockwork Orange at the exact right moment in time? Those are the instincts of a one-of-a-kind executive. 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.”

“John Calley was a genuine legend as an executive, producer and passionate lover of the art of filmmaking,” said Michael Lynton, Chairman & CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment. “We know the entire community shares in our deep sadness over his passing. He was an extraordinarily gifted man, whose grace, wit, sensitivity and intelligence were an inspiration to all of us and will be sorely missed. We will not see his like again.”

Mr. Calley was born on July 8, 1930, in Jersey City, N.J. He joined the entertainment industry at the age of 21, landing a job in the NBC mailroom in New York after serving in the U.S. Army. That job led to positions of increasing responsibility in sales, production and programming during the television network’s formative years, with Mr. Calley eventually becoming director of nighttime programming. From there, Mr. Calley went on to become vice president of Henry Jaffe Enterprises, where he was responsible for developing and producing musical entertainment for films. He next moved to Ted Bates Advertising as vice president in charge of radio and television programming.

Mr. Calley later joined Filmways, where he produced such hits as Ice Station Zebra, Topkapi, The Cincinnati Kid, The Americanization of Emily, The Loved One and Catch-22, based on the Joseph Heller novel of wartime insanity. While working on Catch-22, Mr. Calley became identified with a seismic shift in Hollywood’s balance of power. The late 1960s ushered in a new generation of younger filmmakers just as the major studios were discovering the vast potential of the youth market, largely due to the runaway success of Easy Rider.

“Kids were kings. After Easy Rider, everything was exploding everywhere,” Mr. Calley recalled in a 1999 newspaper interview. “We were all young, it was our time, and it was very exciting. The founders were no longer in charge… What had been this rigid, immobile structure had completely come apart, and what was left was a lot of freedom.”

In 1969, Mr. Calley moved to Warner Bros., where he served as head of production, president and vice chairman. During his 13 years there with partners Frank Wells and Ted Ashley, Warner Bros. had a string of successful films. The studio’s hits included The Exorcist, Dirty Harry, A Clockwork Orange, Deliverance, Towering Inferno, A Star Is Born, Blazing Saddles, What’s Up Doc?, Jeremiah Johnson, Klute, All The President’s Men, Superman, Barry Lyndon, Chariots of Fire and Woodstock.

Throughout his career, he worked closely with top directors, from Stanley Kubrick (who for years was one of Mr. Calley’s closest confidantes), to Clint Eastwood and Sydney Pollack to Federico Fellini, among many others. His friends included producer/director Mike Nichols, and actress Candice Bergen. While at Warner Bros., Mr. Calley was responsible for all of Mr. Kubrick’s and Mr. Eastwood’s films, including the latter’s Dirty Harry and Western franchises. Mr. Calley also was responsible for films released under the First Artists, Orion and Ladd Company banners.

In 1980, Mr. Calley took a hiatus from the film industry and moved to a home he owned on Fishers Island in Long Island Sound. For the next several years, he traveled extensively. In 1989, he became an independent film producer in partnership with Mr. Nichols. Together, they produced the critically acclaimed Postcards From The Edge and Remains Of The Day.

In September 1993, Mr. Calley joined MGM/United Artists Pictures as president and chief operating officer. While there, he oversaw all facets of development and production for films produced and released under the United Artists banner. Mr. Calley helped revitalize the studio with such worldwide hits as Goldeneye, the highest-grossing film in the history of the James Bond franchise, and the smash comedy The Birdcage, the contemporary American version of La Cage Aux Folles.

During his tenure at United Artists, Mr. Calley also shepherded the critically acclaimed Leaving Las Vegas, starring Academy Award®-winner Nicolas Cage, and Richard III, starring Sir Ian McKellan. After three years with MGM/United Artists Pictures, in October 1996, Mr. Calley left to join Sony Pictures Entertainment where he was named president and chief operating officer. He spent seven years with the studio, retiring in 2003 as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. During this time, he oversaw the production of such blockbusters as Spider-Man, As Good As It Gets, Men In Black, and Air Force One, among many others. Under his leadership, Sony’s home entertainment and international television businesses experienced strong growth, and the domestic TV division had hit shows like The King of Queens and Dawson’s Creek.

Throughout his life, Mr. Calley was an avid sailing enthusiast and in his later years, spent much time enjoying his love of the sea on one of his boats. He was also an avid lover of classic and collectible automobiles.

He was a philanthropist and was a proud member of the board of the American Film Institute (AFI), among many other professional and charitable affiliations.

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