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I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History

Walter Mirisch

Publication Year: 2008

This is a moving, star-filled account of one of Hollywood’s true golden ages as told by a man in the middle of it all. Walter Mirisch’s company has produced some of the most entertaining and enduring classics in film history, including West Side Story, Some Like It Hot, In the Heat of the Night, and The Magnificent Seven. His work has led to 87 Academy Award nominations and 28 Oscars. Richly illustrated with rare photographs from his personal collection, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History reveals Mirisch’s own experience of Hollywood and tells the stories of the stars—emerging and established—who appeared in his films, including Natalie Wood, John Wayne, Peter Sellers, Sidney Poitier, Steve McQueen, Marilyn Monroe, and many others.
    With hard-won insight and gentle humor, Mirisch recounts how he witnessed the end of the studio system, the development of independent production, and the rise and fall of some of Hollywood’s most gifted (and notorious) cultural icons. A producer with a passion for creative excellence, he offers insights into his innovative filmmaking process, revealing a rare ingenuity for placating the demands of auteur directors, weak-kneed studio executives, and troubled screen sirens.
    From his early start as a movie theater usher to the presentation of such masterpieces as The Apartment, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Great Escape, Mirisch tells the inspiring life story of his climb to the highest echelon of the American film industry. This book assures Mirisch’s legacy—as Elmore Leonard puts it—as “one of the good guys.”

Best Books for Special Interests, selected by the American Association of School Librarians, and Best Books for General Audiences, selected by the Public Library Association

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix

I admire you, Walter Mirisch, for having so often touched our hearts and left in our possession indelible memories of all that you are: legendary producer, visionary filmmaker, courageous seeker of truth, especially in troubling times. I respect you for your decades-long insistence that integrity maintain a constant presence in the creative...

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pp. xi-xiv

When you have produced close to a hundred motion pictures since 1947, you’re allowed a series of Bomba the Jungle Boy movies during the early years—Bomba, in a jungle created on a soundstage, gazing out at African wildlife footage Walter was able to get his hands on. By the time he was twenty-nine, Walter was running production at Monogram...


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pp. xv-xvi

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pp. 3-5

In March 1989 I was taken completely by surprise when Donna Shalala, then chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, telephoned with the news that the appropriate faculty group had voted to confer an honorary doctorate on me, in recognition of the accomplishments of my long career. I felt...

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1. My Family

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pp. 6-14

My mother, Josephine Frances Urbach, and my father, Max Mirisch, were married in New York City on March 4, 1917. He was the proprietor of a custom tailoring business that made men’s clothes to order for a largely upper-middle-class clientele, a business that he had been in for about twenty years...

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2. The University of Wisconsin

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pp. 15-21

As soon as I arrived in Milwaukee, in May 1940, I began to work at the Oriental Theater, one of the two that Harold managed. Our family was settled in a nice apartment in a good neighborhood. Marvin was earning more money at National Screen Service than he had earned in New York. I wanted to...

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3. Los Angeles and Monogram

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pp. 22-35

It was the summer of 1943 when I first arrived in Los Angeles. Harold had suggested I call a friend of his, Rodney Pantages, who operated the Pantages Theater in Hollywood and might be able to help me get settled. The Pantages was an affiliate of RKO’s. I called Rodney, who was very hospitable, and at his...

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4. Allied Artists

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pp. 36-44

After I had completed production of my first three pictures for Monogram—Fall Guy, I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes, and Bomba, the Jungle Boy—my brother Harold, who by then was the general manager of the RKO theater circuit based in New York, told me that he had gotten into a serious quarrel with the people for whom he was working and had either...

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5. The 1950s

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pp. 45-60

Steve Broidy rightly felt that it was necessary for film companies to get into the business of making films for television. He also felt that, because of the low cost of its operations, Monogram was particularly well suited for television production. He asked me to be the head of a television subsidiary, Interstate Television, which he formed. Unfortunately, Monogram never...

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6. The Screen Producers Guild

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pp. 61-66

Shortly after I became head of production at Monogram in 1951, I received a telephone call from Arthur Hornblow Jr., a well-known producer at Paramount and at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He introduced himself and told me that he and a group of other producers had been talking about organizing a Screen Producers Guild, along the lines of the writers and...

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7. Back at Allied Artists

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pp. 67-71

In 1954, I was finally able to get the Technicolor Corporation to agree to process a film for Allied Artists. I considered this a great coup and another step forward for the Allied Artists product. I looked carefully for a subject that would justify the additional expense, since both the processing and the print costs of Technicolor...

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8. Moulin Productions, Inc.

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pp. 72-77

Moulin Rouge had been released by United Artists in 1952 and had received marvelous reviews. It was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture of that year. Jose Ferrer, John Huston, and Colette Marchand were all nominated in their respective categories, and it received seven nominations...

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9. William Wyler and Friendly Persuasion and Billy Wilder and Love in the Afternoon

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pp. 78-83

Willy Wyler was the first director we had signed who became available to Allied Artists, and as his first project he proposed Friendly Persuasion, a script that had been written by Michael Wilson, based upon a book by Jessamyn West. The script was owned by Paramount but probably had...

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10. On Our Own

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pp. 84-99

My brother Harold and I now had to accept the fact that our attempt to develop a major film company at Allied Artists wasn’t going to succeed. It simply was too underfinanced. We began to look for alternatives. Steve Broidy, a perpetual...

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11. Billy Wilder and Some Like It Hot

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pp. 100-103

Billy Wilder told us that he was interested in doing a film about an all-girl orchestra, the premise of which had been utilized many years before in a German film, Fanfare der Lieben, or Fanfares of Love. He proposed that we acquire the rights to Fanfare. It became a real test for the attorneys to find the...

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12. John Ford and The Horse Soldiers

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pp. 104-107

Generally I function as a producer in the traditional style of David Selznick, Samuel Goldwyn, and Hal Wallis, producers who came out of an earlier period, when the producer found the material, arranged to acquire it, or else initiated the story himself. Many films I have produced were based on story ideas...

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13. John Sturges and The Magnificent Seven [contains image plates]

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pp. 108-113

Soon after we had made our arrangement with United Artists and had asked Billy Wilder to join us, Harold and I felt that we should try to secure other first-rank directors for our films. We tried to find projects for the men we knew and with whom we had previous associations, such as William Wyler and John Huston. John Sturges, however, was a director with whom I had been...

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14. The 1960s

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pp. 114-121

United Artists had film production arrangements with many producing entities, and among them was one with Seven Arts Productions. Seven Arts was an independent producing company that was partly owned by Eliot Hyman, who many years before had been involved with us in the financing of Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick. Eliot was a hard-driving, entrepreneurial pioneer in...

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15. West Side Story

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pp. 122-130

Bob Wise suggested that Ernest Lehman, who had previously written Executive Suite for him at MGM, write the screenplay of West Side Story. Billy Wilder, whose counsel I sought, also recommended Lehman, with whom he had worked on Sabrina. Bob and I met with Ernie Lehman and talked...

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16. One, Two, Three and Other Projects

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pp. 131-139

Billy Wilder’s next picture, One,Two, Three, might be called inevitable. Finally he had to have his say on the screen about postwar Germany, in a way that reflected his own wit and brilliance. As the vehicle for his satire, he chose an old Molnár play, Eins, Zwei, Drei (One, Two Three), and he changed...

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17. William Wyler, Elvis Presley, and John Sturges

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pp. 140-153

From the beginning of the formation of our company, we had made strenuous efforts to find a vehicle that would be mutually agreeable to ourselves, United Artists, and William Wyler. The experience on Friendly Persuasion, despite the fact that it was an expensive film and not commercially successful in its own time, had not in any way damaged the personal relationship...

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18. A Big Hit and a Few Misses

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pp. 154-161

By 1962, Billy Wilder had made Some Like It Hot, One,Two, Three, and The Apartment, the first and last of which had been smash hits for us. One,Two, Three had not been a box-office hit, but it certainly was a most interesting and worthy effort. Billy now suggested that his next film be based on a musical play that was currently running in London, Irma La Douce starring Elizabeth...

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19. Blake Edwards and The Pink Panther

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pp. 162-171

One of the early targets of The Mirisch Company’s campaign to attract talented directors was Blake Edwards. I had met Blake many years before, when he was still an actor and I was just beginning my career at Monogram. Blake was acting in Panhandle, a film that he and John Champion produced for Monogram, directed...

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20. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

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pp. 172-200

Iwas first elected to the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1964, an election that marked the beginning of a lifelong association with the Academy. In 1966, I was elected assistant treasurer, and two years later I became treasurer. When I first joined the board, the president was Arthur Freed, the legendary producer of MGM...

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21. 633 Squadron, a New Corporate Entity, and Unrealized Projects

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pp. 201-207

One of the first properties The Mirisch Company had acquired was 633 Squadron, a novel by Frederick E. Smith. It is a fictional World War II story about the British Royal Air Force Mosquito bombers, which were built of plywood and were the only wooden airplanes flown in combat...

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22. The Start of a Jinx and Cinerama

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pp. 208-217

After having written, produced, and directed the immensely successful Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and Irma La Douce, as well as One,Two, Three, for The Mirisch Company, Billy Wilder had developed an adaptation of an Italian play, L’Ora Della Fantasia by Anna Bonacci, which he called Kiss Me, Stupid. It was his idea to cast Dean Martin as a famous pop singer...

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23. Hawaii

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pp. 218-234

The Mirisch Company and United Artists were both enthused by the pairing of Fred Zinnemann with James Michener in Hawaii. By 1965 the book had realized our fondest hopes and become a huge best-selling novel. It also offered the sweep and the promise of a film spectacle on a par with Gone with the Wind. The novel personalizes the story of...

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24. A New Relationship with Norman Jewison

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pp. 235-245

Our next release, The Fortune Cookie, was considerably less expensive and took place in a quite different locale, Cleveland, Ohio. The Fortune Cookie probably stemmed from the fact that Billy Wilder was a great football fan and a regular viewer of Monday Night Football. He postulated an accident happening to the football sideline cameraman, who happens...

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25. In the Heat of the Night

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pp. 246-258

In 1965, Martin Baum, an agent who represented Sidney Poitier, brought me the book In the Heat of the Night by John Ball and said that it had been submitted to him by a literary agent, H. N. Swanson, who represented Ball, as a possible vehicle for Sidney Poitier. At that time, Sidney was the preeminent African American actor in American films...

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26. A Western, a Comedy, a Drama, and a Caper

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pp. 259-270

Following In the Heat of the Night , the next release of The Mirisch Corporation (our new corporate name) was Hour of the Gun in October 1967, produced and directed by John Sturges. The story of Hour of the Gun began where John Sturges had left it ten years earlier in his film Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. John had found a book, Tombstone’s Epitaph by Douglas...

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27. Personal Matters—Familial and Corporate [contains image plates]

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pp. 271-276

By 1963, my oldest brother, Irving, was also living in Los Angeles. He had been running the Theaters Candy Company in Milwaukee for a long time but felt that without an infusion of a great deal of capital it was impossible to expand the business. He became anxious to sell it. He and Harold owned the major share in the company, and they agreed to dispose of it...

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28. Dark Days for the Film Industry

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pp. 277-294

In February 1969 we announced the election of Marvin E. Mirisch as chairman of our board of directors and chief executive officer. I was elected president, succeeding Harold, and I was to also serve as executive head of production. At the same time the board ratified and authorized execution...

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29. Billy Wilder and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Avanti!

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pp. 295-302

Billy Wilder remarked to me one day in the early 1960s, “You know who are the most famous people in all literature? Probably Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes. I think there’s a marvelous movie yet to be made about the real Sherlock Holmes.” He began to read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories and many of the books that had been written about Holmes...

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30. Fiddler on the Roof

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pp. 303-313

In September 1964, I went to see the play Fiddler on the Roof during the first week of its New York engagement. I was deeply moved and thought it was a wonderful, poignant, human story that said a great deal about people. The play was written by Joseph Stein, adapted from stories by Sholom Aleichem. The score...

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31. Goodbye to United Artists

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pp. 314-323

The year 1971 had produced a decided upturn for The Mirisch Corporation. Our output, up to this time in our then-operative United Artists contract, had been most disappointing, but the profits from Fiddler on the Roof were so high that it turned the whole deal around....

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32. Hello to Universal

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pp. 324-347

Early in 1974, Marvin and I met with Arthur Krim, who had returned to resuscitate the management of UA, to discuss the possibility of a new arrangement. Surprisingly, he proposed a new contract based on the two-picture...

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33. The Return of Peter Sellers

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pp. 348-358

Peter Sellers’s career, which had always been something of a roller coaster, had turned to the upside by the mid-1970s, largely due to the resuscitation of the Clouseau character in The Return of the Pink Panther in 1975. Peter was in Los Angeles in 1976, working in a film, when I called him and told him...

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34. The 1980s and 1990s

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pp. 359-385

Bernard Slade, who had written Same Time, Next Year, had authored another play that had also been produced on Broadway by Morton Gottlieb. It was Romantic Comedy, starring Mia Farrow and Anthony Perkins, a story of a team of successful playwrights who, after long collaboration, discover...

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pp. 386-388

In the first decade of the new millennium, I find myself still fortunately blessed with good health, a loving family, and great optimism about my country, my industry, and the future. I am filled with gratitude for all the opportunities that have been given to me and mine, and I am convinced the future will be even richer...


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pp. 389-414

Career Milestones and Awards

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pp. 415-417


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pp. 419-449

E-ISBN-13: 9780299226435
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299226404

Publication Year: 2008