• Cecil B. DeMille

Ready for My deMille: Profiles in Excellence – Walter Mirisch, 1977

Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette DavisElizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award, per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.
He’s possibly the only Cecil B. deMille recipient you’ve never heard of, but Walter Mirisch is certainly deserving of this honor. Starting at the bottom, he joined the ramshackle studio Monogram Pictures, whose early output ranged from John Wayne programmers through the East Side Kids, Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson, Charlie Chan, The Bowery Boys, and Maggie and Jiggs features; you get the idea, Hollywood’s poverty row.
But with his arrival, suddenly the quality of their products improved. He initiated Bomba, the Jungle Boy, with Johnny Sheffield, who had outgrown playing Tarzan’s son in the MGM movies, and it spawned numerous sequels. Eager to break away from the studio’s embarrassing reputation, he convinced his bosses that low budget movies were no longer viable, and they allowed him to create a division – Allied Artists – with the objective of making quality films. His two brothers Marvin and Harold joined him in top executive positions.
His first production Flat Top with Sterling Hayden was a hit, and he followed it with Annapolis Story with John Derek directed by Don Siegel, even winning a Golden Globe for Wichita, in a dubious category that year for “Best Outdoor Drama,” however, directed by Jacques Tourneur – Mirisch had a penchant for choosing distinguished directors – Wichita is a superb western which earns a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating.
Perhaps encouraged by this HFPA recognition, in 1955 he made up his mind. He was going to make not only quality movies but ones that would attract the top directors and stars and vie for Oscars and Golden Globes. Starting with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, again with Don Siegel directing, it became a critical and box office hit, and enabled him to attract the cream of Hollywood talent, Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire in William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasionwhich was nominated for a best picture Oscar and earned Anthony Perkins a Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer.
Encouraged by this unexpected success, he and his brothers formed the Mirisch Company in 1957, which for the next fifteen years became the most successful independent in Hollywood history, releasing their films through United Artists.
By 1959 they were attracting the likes of John Wayne and William Holden and no less than John Ford to direct The Horse Soldiers. And a year later Billy Wilder gave the company its first taste of glory when The Apartment won five Academy Awards and three Golden Globes including ones for Best Picture. The film was also a box-office hit. Their follow up, The Magnificent Sevenwas the icing on the cake and sealed their reputation as a major player.
By Love Possessed was a temporary setback, but then their risky and expensive gamble on West Side Story changed their destiny forever. The film won ten Oscars including Best Picture as well as Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture Musical and Best Supporting Actor and Actress. It was a huge box office success and began their long relationship with Robert Wise. Following that triumph, Mirisch worked with William Wyler again on his remake of The Children’s Hour, although an improvement on These Three, it didn’t connect with audiences or critics despite Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in the leading roles.
Two musicals with Elvis were followed by the misbegotten Two for the Seesaw with Robert Wise directing. But then they had another box office bonanza, The Great Escape, arguably Mirisch’s most beloved movie, and one which allowed director John Sturges to recover from his By Love Possessed debacle. Another Lillian Hellman Broadway transfer, Toys in the Attic, was nominated for two Golden Globes, one for Geraldine Page as Best Actress and the other for Wendy Hiller as Best Supporting Actress, but the film went nowhere.
But then two hit Peter Sellers’ comedies set the stage for Oscar glory once again and this time he took screen credit as a producer on In the Heat of the Night which earned him his only Oscar as a producer of the Best Picture. It was his first Golden Globe win and his second collaboration with Norman Jewison, following the previous year’s surprise hit, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Comingwhich gave the Mirisch Company its second Golden Globe as Best Musical or Comedy.
He had box-office successes with The Party, Peter Sellers’ third collaboration with Blake Edwards, and with The Thomas Crown Affair,  which won both the Golden Globe and the Oscar for Best Song, “The Windmills of Your Mind.” Two years later he made possible another Broadway classic transfer, Fiddler on the Roof, which once again was the Golden Globe Best Musical winner. Although its initial release was underwhelming, the film has since become one treasured by theatergoers for its faithful transfer to the screen.
However, it spelled finis to an illustrious record, although there were a few later successes, including a Golden Globe Best Actress win for Ellen Burstyn for Same Time Next Year, essentially Mirisch’s best days were over. He enjoyed serving the Academy as president and it in turn rewarded him with both the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and the Irving Thalberg Award.
It would be redundant to list his classic movies but instead, let’s allow Ron Howard the last word. “From Bomba, the Jungle Boy to Some Like It Hot and In the Heat of the Night, Walter Mirisch produced many of the films which dazzled and inspired me (and I’m not kidding about Bomba. I loved those movies as a kid). When I later acted in one of his (lesser) productions, The Spikes Gang, I learned that a prolific and brilliant producer could also be a terrific guy and a wonderful teacher.”
We couldn’t have said it better.