Producer Walter Mirisch on His Expansive Career in Hollywood

Walter Mirisch, Mary Mazur, and Michael Riley

This week, KCET Cinema Series honored producer Walter Mirisch with the Lumière Award at a special screening event of the 1960 western "The Magnificent Seven." The Lumière Award recognizes excellence, artistry, and innovation by an actor or filmmaker for their outstanding contribution to film. Past recipients include Kevin Costner (2014), Gary Oldman (2011), Dame Judi Dench (2005), and Ian McKellen (2003).

During Mirisch's expansive career as a producer, he worked on dozens of films and some essential Hollywood classics too, including "Some Like It Hot" featuring Marilyn Monroe; the Peter Sellers comedy "The Pink Panther;" and the Oscar-winning 1967 film "In the Heat of the Night."

Before the movie screening, film critic and event host Pete Hammond spoke with Mirisch in a Q&A -- which you can listen to, and read, below -- revealing behind-the-scenes insights about the social impact of "In the Heat of the Night," and the upcoming remake of "The Magnificent Seven."

Walter Mirisch: Somehow, receiving awards never gets old. This is a wonderful evening that gives me a great opportunity to see one of my really treasured memories of "The Magnificent Seven," which is a really milestone film in my career and in my life. And I am deeply moved, honored, and proud to receive this most distinguished award here this evening. I am particularly proud to remember that it comes from KCET whose studio was my home for some 10 years in the very beginning of my career and where all the films of my earlier career were made in that studio, which later became the KCET home. I'm also proud that a sponsor of this event is the James and Paula Coburn Foundation. And I single that out only because Jim was a friend of mine. I was crazy about him. We first met when he was in a segment of a television show that I was making that starred Joel McCrea, and he was in the pilot episode called the "The Night the Cowboys Roared" and Jimmy was just great in it, and I remembered him and as my career progressed, and as his did, I kept looking for opportunities to find a role. Well, it didn't really happen until "The Magnificent Seven" came along and then I did find the right role for him. I think you will agree tonight when we see the picture, because he is just marvelous in it. Later on, we continued to work together and then Jim appeared in the "Great Escape," also a signal film in my curriculum. Then later and finally, the last one he did for me was "Midway" in 1975. I'm also proud to be a part of this continuing saga of KCET's extraordinary contribution to our community and I've enjoyed it all my life and I continue to as I'm sure most of you do.

Pete Hammond: This is such a nice award. I'm so happy that you're here to accept it and that we can give it to you tonight because, man, I love this book. I read this book when it came out. This is his autobiography and if ever you want to read a book about Hollywood and what males it work and tick, "I Thought That We Were Making Movies, Not History" by Walter Mirisch is it. And look at the cover with all of those Oscars and the Thalberg Award, and the Golden Globe, I mean, this is one hell of a career that you've had. You mentioned "The Magnificent Seven," which we're showing tonight, is a highlight of it too, I'm curious though how this film came about because there was a Japanese film in the '50s, the great "Seven Samurai"...

WM: Kurosawa is a great Japanese director who made "Seven Samurai" and I saw it and I thought it was wonderful. It starred the great Japanese actor [Toshiro] Mifune, who I later had the privilege of working with. He appeared in my film "Midway" many years later. But "Seven Samurai," for those of you who haven't seen it, is a story of Japanese soldiers of fortune in the medieval period of Japan. And I kept thinking about whether or not this could be translated into an American picture. I was thinking about it when a friend of mine, who was associated with Yul Brynner, called me up and said "you know, you'd ask me about the rights to 'Seven Samurai,'" he said, "you know, it's funny, you and Brynner brought the same question up to me because he also has Japanese connections." So we both apparently thought that perhaps he could intervene with Toho, the Japanese company that produced "Seven Samurai." And he said, "he too is interested in it" and I had, just at that time, succeeded in attracting to our company John Sturges. I was a great fan of John's movies and I called them up and I said "John, I think I've got the first movie for us to make. I want you to come over and I want to run 'Seven Samurai' with you." And he said, "fine, he said I haven't seen it but I'd like to." He came over, and the two of us sat alone in a projection room and we watched "Seven Samurai" and we had the best time ever, talking aloud while the film was running, translating all of the sequences of Mr. Kurosawa's movie into the Western motif. In the projection room, we made a Western out of "Seven Samurai." And that was the beginning of it. Then we hit on a marvelous writer, Walter Newman, who did the basic script of the "The Magnificent Seven."

PH: Walter Newman, actually, I noticed on the poster out there, he's not listed as a screenwriter, he was a blacklisted writer at the time, right?

WM: No, he was not a blacklisted writer.

PH: Oh, okay.

WM: That's not true, and don't let that get around.

PH: Okay.

WM: It's not so.

PH: Alright.

WM: However, Walter was very stubborn. While we were shooting the picture, we needed some work done while we were down in Mexico, and I asked Walter to come down, and for one reason or another, he couldn't come. I think the Writer's Guild then had an arbitration, and decided that the writer we had brought down, who had made us reasonably significant contribution, should get some sort of shared credit on it. And Walter resented that, he was angry at his guild, not at John or I, and he said if they didn't give him sole credit, he didn't want anything. And it was a very serious career mistake that Walter -- who was a wonderful writer -- made. And Bill Roberts did the work down in Mexico, and helped us field the suggestions that came from our always cooperative cast, all of whom wanted to enlarge their roles. And so, that's how that came about.

PH: Actually, James Coburn, his role, I think he's one member of the cast that liked not having that many lines. He had like 11 lines when you see the picture?

WM: Oh, I never counted them. However, he plays this laconic character. You know, I shall never forget. I was sitting in my office one day, and Walter Newman came into my office, and he said, "I've got to ask you something I've been noodling with, and I can't make up my mind." He said, "Let me ask you, if two men face one another, and one of them had a gun, and the other one had a knife, and they both fired at the same time, which would arrive first?" I said, "That's not a question, there's no question about it, the bullet would." And he said, "Well, I've been thinking about having the knife-thrower do it." And I said, "What a great idea, let's do it!"

PH: That's great.

WM: And so that's how that great scene got into the movie, and we kid about it all the time.

PH: Beautifu. Wow, so that's how that got into the movie? Because you said that?

WM: Well, it was showmanship, and it's important. And Jim was the perfect person to execute it.

PH: Yeah, he's so good and he shows the essence of screen-acting in this. Sometimes silences and lack of dialogue is more effective, I think, for an actor. You've worked with him so many times -- "The Great Escape" -- where he was so good in that, and you did another picture you didn't mention...

WM: "Midway."

PH: Right. And "What Did You Do In The War, Daddy?" also?

WM: "What Did You Do In The War, Daddy?"

PH: Yes, quite a few. Talk about the rest of the cast, though, because Steve McQueen was in a television series at the time called "Wanted Dead or Alive."

Walter Mirisch with Marilyn Monroe.
Walter Mirisch with Marilyn Monroe.

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WM: Yeah, well you know, the casting of "The Magnificent Seven" was kind of a fun exercise for John Sturges and I, as we were doing this, because we had these wonderful roles to fill, and I'd try and get all my favorite actors in, and John would try and get his. And that's how Jim got in, because I had been looking for a really good Jim Coburn role since "Wichita Town." And then John Sturges had made a movie for MGM with Frank Sinatra called "Never So Few," and he kept telling me he had this kid in it, and "the kid is marvelous, and we got to find a role for the kid." And the kid, of course, was Steve McQueen. And so Steve McQueen now got in the picture. And then this thing started to get along...

PH: Charles Bronson?

WM: Well, Charlie Bronson, of course, I had known for a long time, and I'd also wanted to find something for him, and the O'Reilly part just cried out "Charlie." The most exciting casting in it, I think, comes with a story. I hadn't heard this story before, but a couple of years ago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York honored me, and at the event, they asked Eli Wallach to come and speak about me. And I hadn't seen Eli a lot in recent years. He always lived in New York, and we didn't run across one another too often. But Eli got up, and he said, "You know, I think I owe my whole career to Walter Mirisch," and I perked up -- didn't seem so peculiar to me. I didn't know why he felt that way. I was as interested as I hope you all are now, to hear what this is. And Eli says, "You know, until I met Walter Mirisch, I was just another Jewish actor in New York. After I met him, I became a Mexican bandit for life."

I hope it was worth waiting for. Anyway, that's how we got Eli Wallach.

PH: It was Sturges's idea to cast him?

WM: It was John's idea, and it was brilliant.

PH: But when he said it, did you go like, "What, are you crazy? Eli Wallach?"

WM: I said, "Are you crazy?" He said, "No, no, now just stop and think." And then we started to look at some film, and then I met him. And then, it kind of came together. John and I had a wonderful relationship. As a matter of fact, I am indebted to John Sturges for the title of my book. He had called me once, while I was writing it, he was retired by then, and he loved boats, and he was down in Mexico someplace on his boat, and he called me up and he said, "Walter, I've got to write an article that I've been asked to do about 'The Great Escape,' and I don't really remember some things that I wanted to write about, and I wondered if you happened to still have a copy of the script?" And I said, "John, I can't believe that you don't have a copy of the script. This is one of the best movies of your whole life!" And he said, "What are you talking about? I thought we were just making movies, not history!" And so that resonated with me, and I use the title, with credit to him, for my book.

PH: You really didn't think you were making history, when you made all these movies...

WM: No!

PH: You didn't?

WM: I was trying to make a living!

PH: Wow. It's like when they say the music is the soundtrack of your life, your film career is like the soundtrack of mine, from "Some Like It Hot" to "West Side Story." You know, "West Side Story" and "The Apartment" were back-to-back Best Picture winners. Very few people in the history of the movies have pulled that off alone. And "Some Like It Hot" came the year before that. You know, I think everybody thinks...

WM: Why "Some Like It Hot"... I don't even think it was nominated.

PH: It wasn't for Best Picture, and it should've been, but comedy always gets short shrift, I think. Billy Wilder, you did nine films with him?

WM: Nine films -- actually, he worked for nobody else during a period of 17 years when we were together. However, the important thing in my career was not making those movies -- or not just making those movies with Billy Wilder. What was more important was having 1,000 lunches with him. He was the most interesting, stimulating, brilliant man I have ever known.

PH: That would be another book -- 1,000 lunches with Billy Wilder. That's your next book. Can I say how old you are? Because you're still working every day, you go to the office, you're developing movies and things. Ninety-three years old?

WM: It's old.

PH: Amazing.

WM: I have done nothing to deserve that, it's all genetic!

PH: I heard even, you know, you just had a Hallmark movie that you had done?

WM: Oh yeah. As a matter of fact, they just reran it a couple of weeks ago, I think. It ran originally about four, five months ago, around the first of the year. And I'm making another one for them now.

PH: Will we ever see another "Pink Panther?"

WM: Yes, I'm working on a script of that for MGM now. This is going to be a combination live-action and animation, and I think it's going to be very, very interesting. It's really challenging, and something new, and I'm very excited by it.

PH: Wow. Do you have a personal favorite? I know that's a question you get asked probably every day, but...

WM: How many children do you have?

PH: Well...

WM: Do you have a personal favorite? If you have, you won't tell.

PH: This list of movies, and "The Great Escape," which I've seen -- I've seen it 40 times -- we showed it here, we showed it on one of our Colburn nights, and that movie holds up. These movies hold up, they live on.

WM: Well, that's what classic movies are, I guess. And that's really the exciting thing about having lived to this ripe old age: you get to see how succeeding generations react to your films, and to the things you wanted to say to audiences. It's particularly true of "West Side Story," and the message of "West Side Story," which, that message needs to be repeated again and again, because we still haven't learned our lessons. And I had hoped that...

PH: It's true, and it's not just "West Side Story," it's "In the Heat of the Night" and...

WM: "In the Heat of the Night," which attacked the racial issue, right in the heart of the Civil Rights revolution, I hoped would make a real contribution to better understanding and tolerance and so forth. And I don't know, I guess I like to think that it made some contribution, but certainly it hasn't solved the problem yet, that problem of course is still with us, as we see in the headlines of our newspapers today. However, motion pictures, besides entertaining, can be tremendously, tremendously important in educating people, because it is a way to understand issues in a way that's easy to accept. And hopefully they will come away from it feeling much more sympathetic to that black detective who's the protagonist in "In the Heat of the Night."

PH: The brilliant Sidney Poitier, who -- you have lunch with him every day.

WM: Not every day.

PH: But a lot?

WM: Every week. But you know, I've known Sidney for 50-60 years, and we are very, very close friends, and I've learned a lot from him, and I wish other people had those same kinds of opportunities. And, you know, I desperately hoped that "In the Heat of the Night" would help people understand better, as the redneck sheriff played by Rod Steiger learns, but I don't know, I think that picture needs to be shown more often. And people need to see it and understand it. And learn the lesson of "In the Heat of the Night."

PH: That's for sure. I was happy to write an article this past Oscar season on "In the Heat of the Night," because "Selma," as a movie that had come out, and Martin Luther King was being talked about a lot. And when you won the Oscar, they'd actually postponed the ceremony by two days because Martin Luther King had just been assassinated, and they postponed the Oscar ceremony. The votes were in, nobody knew at that point, and it won, and it made such an impact.

WM: It was huge. However, there are a lot of lessons that need to be relearned, and I think the lesson of "In the Heat of the Night" needs to be constantly relearned as we observe the history of our great, great country.

Walter Mirisch and Pete Hammond.
Walter Mirisch and Pete Hammond.

PH: Now, "The Magnificent Seven" -- I spoke to you on the phone yesterday, and I mentioned it to you, and I just want to mention it: this lives on. You did three sequels yourself to this movie.

WM: Yeah. The first one, Yul Brynner appeared in, in "Return of the Seven," and then other people played in it, in this thing, and over the years, we used the franchise a number of times...

PH: A television series...

WM: Right, though it hasn't been done in recent years.

PH: But now it's being remade?

WM: Yes, it is now being remade. And we're shooting it now down in Louisiana, and it stars Denzel Washington, who will play the part I guess that's most comparable to Yul Brynner's part, and Chris Pratt, who plays the lead in "Jurassic World," [and] Ethan Hawke -- it's got a wonderful cast.

PH: And you're going to have an executive producer credit on it.

WM: Yes, I am. I've consulted, and tried to be contributory.

PH: Now, is it going to have any of that iconic theme? Which I have to ask you before we play the movie, and hear that theme, by Elmer Bernstein, one of the most famous pieces of music in movie history.

WM: Wasn't nominated.

PH: Was not nominated for the score, right? No.

WM: Actually, it was nominated in one of the sequels that came along later. But in the original picture... it just shows that the Academy Awards are imperfect.

PH: This coming from a man who used to be the president of the Academy!

WM:But, you know, it is a magnificent piece of music. And it developed its own life; of course, it became the theme of the Marlboro cigarette company, and they played it for years, and years, and years in their commercials.

PH: It's great. I got the opportunity to write one of the Governor's awards recently, a few years ago, for the Academy, and Eli Wallach was one of the honorees, and we sat around in a meeting and said, "Well what are we going to play him on for the greeting," and I said, "What are you, nuts? It's got to be 'The Magnificent Seven!'" And that's what they did, and it's just amazing. The whole movie -- I'm so excited to be able see it again on the big screen, and on film. This is a 35 mm film print that we actually found. You remember film?

WM: Yes, yes I do.

PH: There's nothing like seeing a movie like this on the big screen. So, you know, I could talk to you all night. In fact, I told you yesterday, I went to see a double feature of Walter Mirisch movies on Sunday night at The Egyptian, on American Cinematheque. We saw both "One, Two, Three," and "Kiss Me Stupid," which were great, great movies too.

WM: Well, Billy Wilder -- that's a Billy Wilder double header.

PH: You can't miss it, there's so many, and it's so fun to be seeing them again. I want to thank you for coming out tonight and honoring us with your presence, and for accepting our Lumière award.

Walter Mirisch!

WM: Thank you. You're a great interviewer, and I've enjoyed talking to you, and to all of you, and I do hope you enjoy the film. Thank you!

PH: Thanks!


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