Remembering Walter Mirisch

February 27, 2023 - 2:59pm
Posted by Jim Healy

Walter Mirisch (1921-2023)

By Jim Healy, Director of Programming, UW Cinematheque

The Cinematheque joins the rest of the international community of cineastes and cinephiles in remembering the accomplishments of legendary Hollywood producer Walter Mirisch, who passed away on February 24, 2023, at the age of 101.

Mirisch, who visited the Wisconsin Film Festival in 2000 for a career-spanning tribute, left a deposit of his papers with the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research (WCFTR) that covers some of his best and least known productions made for the Mirisch Company, as well as his decade as a producer and studio head for Monogram Pictures and Allied Artists. A look back at the dozens of movies that Mirisch shepherded into production, either as a hands-on producer or as the head of a production company, reveals a shrewd movie businessman with fine taste in actors and directors.

Through a donation to UW-Madison, Mirisch's alma mater (class of 1942), the Department of Communication Arts was able to renovate a seminar and meeting room situated within the Department's Instructional Media Center: Vilas Hall 3155, now known as the Mirisch Room. In addition to this memorial space on the UW campus and the WCFTR collection, Mirisch's cinematic legacy includes a number of Oscar-winning and canonized classics, but also a number of other terrific entertainments that might not be as celebrated as Mirisch Company milestones like West Side Story, The Magnificent Seven, and In the Heat of the Night, posters for which adorn the walls of the Mirisch Room.

At Monogram, one of the more established of Poverty Row studios, Mirisch earned his first credits as producer on two very low budget crime thrillers, movies that we appreciate today as film noir. With a combined running time that is just a little over two hours, Fall Guy, released in 1947 when Mirisch was only 25 years-old, and I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes (1948), are definitive B movies, cheap programmers meant to fill out the bottom half of a double bill. Neither movie had an especially significant director at the helm, nor superstar talent in front of the camera (unless you count character actors and noir fan favorites Regis Toomey and Elisha Cook, Jr.), but Mirisch had the good fortune in using stories by noir mainstay Cornell Woolrich (Phantom Lady, Rear Window) as the source material for Fall Guy and I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes. Unseen for decades and thought for a while to be a lost film, Shoes was restored in 2021 and released on blu-ray, and noir fans got to discover a true gem that was worthy of comparisons to other noir cheapies like Detour.

It was the Bomba the Jungle Boy serials at Monogram that were Mirisch's first money-making successes, and they led to his being promoted, at the age of 29, to head of production at Allied Artists studios. At Allied Artists, Mirisch oversaw the creation and release of a number of memorable movies with budgets that were still small, but larger than the typical Monogram movie. These included ground breakers like the prison movie, Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) and the sci-fi gem Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), both of which were directed by Don Siegel and produced by another notable UW-Madison alum, Walter Wanger. Other significant Allied Artists releases that Mirisch contributed to: director and production designer William Cameron Menzies' deliriously weird 3-D haunted house movie, The Maze, Joseph H. Lewis' film noir masterpiece The Big Combo (1955), and Jacques Tourneur's Wichita, a Wyatt Earp Western that Mirisch personally produced. The multiple Oscar nominations for William Wyler's Friendly Persuasion (1956), one of the last Allied Artists releases overseen by Mirisch, was a taste of things to come. Mirisch founded the Mirisch Company in 1957 with his producer brothers Walter and Harold, ultimately releasing 68 independently produced feature films that were all released through United Artists.

The Mirisch Company focused on Westerns for the first couple of years, including two major efforts by masters of the genre entering the last decade of their careers, John Ford's The Horse Soldiers (1959) and Anthony Mann's Man of the West (1958). Producer-writer-director Billy Wilder, whose Love in the Afternoon (1957) was also an Allied Artists project late in Mirisch's tenure there, had all of his feature films financed by the Mirisch Company starting with Some Like it Hot (1959) and ending with Avanti! (1970), which will screen at the Cinematheque on Saturday, April 29. Wilder's The Apartment (1960) was the first of three Mirisch Company features in the 1960s that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Though Mirisch made no creative contributions to the Wilder productions, he did take more participation in Mirisch Company movies directed by John Sturges, starting with The Magnificent Seven (1960), a box office smash that led to three Mirisch Company sequels. The Mirisch-Sturges partnership yielded another smash Steve McQueen movie, The Great Escape (1963), the melodramatic potboiler By Love Possessed (1961), and The Satan Bug (1965), a prescient thriller that warned about the dangers of developing deadly viruses in laboratories.

Another big hit for Mirisch, Blake Edwards' 1963 caper comedy The Pink Panther, led to a sequel (A Shot in the Dark ) released just six months later that also starred Peter Sellers as his most popular big screen persona, Inspector Clouseau. In 1968, Edwards, Sellers, and Mirisch teamed again for a movie that some fans consider funnier than any of the Clouseau pictures, the Tati-esque The Party (1968). The Pink Panther also launched a long-running series of Mirisch Company animated shorts that were produced by David DePatie and Friz Freleng.

Mirisch's endorsement of director Norman Jewison yielded several popular and award-winning movies like The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1965), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and Fiddler on the Roof (1971). The culmination of the Jewison-Mirisch collaboration was certainly In the Heat of the Night, which allowed Walter Mirisch, as the credited producer of the movie, to take home the Best Picture Academy Award. The great success of In the Heat of the Night spawned two sequels starring Sidney Poitier as Detective Virgil Tibbs, and allowed for Heat's Oscar-winning editor, Hal Ashby, to be promoted to director beginning with the 1970 Jewison-Mirisch production, The Landlord (1970), the first of Ashby's acclaimed series of 1970s releases.

The mid 1970s saw the dissolution of the United Artists/Mirisch partnership, an the end of this era was marked by two small-scale UA releases, both directed by Richard Fleischer and personally produced by Walter Mirisch: The Spikes Gang, a fun, if downbeat anti-Western starring Lee Marvin and Ron Howard in his last movie before beginning Happy Days; and the Elmore Leonard-scripted Mr. Majestyk, a hit action vehicle for Charles Bronson. For the remainder of the 1970s, Walter Mirisch produced five movies for Universal Pictures, concluding with the 1979 version of Dracula, starring Frank Langella. After the mid-1980s, Walter Mirisch focused primarily on television productions and developing his intellectual properties, but we remember him today for his major achievements in cinema.