Summer 2008

We Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History
(University of Wisconsin Press, 468 pages, $29.95)
By Walter Mirisch

I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History - Walter MirischWalter Mirisch has done it all. In the course of his 50-year career, he went from being a teenage theater usher to one of the most respected producers of the postwar era. He got his start turning out three Bomba, the Jungle Boy movies a year for Monogram Pictures, moved the Mirisch Company he founded with his brothers to Allied Artists, and then to United Artists, where it won best picture Oscars for West Side Story, The Apartment and In the Heat of the Night. He forged productive partnerships with Billy Wilder, William Wyler, John Ford, John Sturges, Blake Edwards and Norman Jewison, and his films netted some 90 Oscars and countless nominations. In between, he helped establish the Producers Guild and received the Academy's Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award.

Mirisch's eminence was not a given. He grew up the son of an immigrant Jewish tailor and his family was almost ruined by the Depression. He attended the University of Wisconsin before studying the logistics of war production at Harvard under champion number-cruncher Robert McNamara. Although he failed the Army physical, the skills he picked up at Harvard fit neatly with his new role as a movie producer. He and his brothers were a more close-knit, less fractious unit than the tempestuous brothers Warner, and Walter considered himself a benign producer in the mold of Thalberg, Schary, Zanuck and Selznick. He recalls with horror the monstrous Harry Cohn publicly bullying his staff in the Columbia commissary. Mirisch believed in initiating projects, hiring writers, and exerting the force of his personality on films in a helpful rather than destructive way.

What makes Mirisch run, however, is not what made Sammy Glick run. Which tends to mean that his long and detailed autobiography suffers somewhat from loyalty and discretion, admirable qualities and often in short supply in the business, but a bit more candor would have made better reading. For instance, he suggests that Steve McQueen, Peter Sellers and Dustin Hoffman could be big pains, but is too much of a gentleman to go there. On the other hand, as president of the Academy in 1975, he helped restore the Oscar denied to Dalton Trumbo during the blacklist for writing The Brave One. Surely, decency has to count for something.

Review written by John Patterson.


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