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Saturday 17 February 2018

Founding fathers... Son of Sam: a life in movies

Obituary: Sam Goldwyn Jr

Final production: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Final production: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Sam Goldwyn Jnr

Samuel Goldwyn Jr, who has died aged 88, was the son of one of the founding fathers of the Hollywood studio system, but went on to make a name for himself as a champion of the independent film movement.

Sam Goldwyn Sr (originally Szmuel Gelbfisz) was one of the founders of Paramount Studios and was the Goldwyn in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, though, in fact, for most of his career he worked as an independent producer of more than 100 films, including such classics as Wuthering Heights (1939), The Little Foxes (1941), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) and Guys and Dolls (1955). "I vicariously lived the life of an independent producer from the time I was four years old," Sam Jr recalled. "And what was always important was writing, writing, writing. 'Don't forget,' [my father] would say, 'it all starts with the word'."

After Sam Sr's death in 1974, Sam Jr gained possession of the rights to 52 of his films, and in 1979, he founded his own operation, the Samuel Goldwyn Co, to acquire, distribute, and later produce films.

Eschewing big production numbers, he concentrated on the "specialised" or arthouse film market, which draws heavily on foreign film production.

Goldwyn was credited with giving Julia Roberts her big break in Mystic Pizza (1988), while in Once Bitten (1985), he introduced the then unknown comedian, Jim Carrey. He also backed such promising young directors as Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet, 1993; Eat Drink Man Woman, 1994), Anthony Minghella (Truly Madly Deeply, 1990) and Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, 1989).

Sam Goldwyn Jr was born in Los Angeles on September 7, 1926, the son of the film mogul by his second wife, the actress Frances Howard. In later life, he would live in his parents' Beverly Hills home which, when he was a child, was the scene of memorable Hollywood parties. Katharine Hepburn once remarked: "You always knew where you stood in Hollywood by where you sat at the Goldywn table."

There was no place set for Sam Jr, however; he ate in the kitchen with the cook. "People always say to me, it must have been wonderful coming from old Hollywood, with all those movie stars, but I never knew anyone,'' he recalled. "I didn't even know who Charlie Chaplin was. My parents really kept me away from it all.''

What he did learn from his father was the vital importance of the bottom line: "What I remember most is the days my father's movies were paid off. The adults had a drink and I was allowed to have a little drink of beer ... If those movies weren't paid for, we were in trouble."

Young Sam Goldwyn left Hollywood as a teenager. He attended Fountain Valley School in Colorado Springs followed by the University of Virginia. Then, after a stint in the US Army at the end of the Second World War, he worked briefly in London for the Rank Organisation, co-producing Diana Dors's first film, Good Time Girl (1948), and as a stage producer.

After another stint in the Army during the Korean War, he returned to Hollywood in the 1950s. "The first movie I made was very, very successful," he recalled. "I made $1 million on Man With the Gun, (1955) a Western with Bob Mitchum. And I said, 'Gee, this looks so easy to do'.

Somebody very wise said, 'But you're going to find out very soon it isn't'. So the next movie I made (The Sharkfighters, with Victor Mature in 1956), I lost $1 million."

In the late 1950s, his father talked him out of buying the film rights to Ian Fleming's James Bond. Sam Jr had met Fleming, who expressed concern that he could not find a studio to adapt the books because they were considered anti-Russian. "My father said, 'look, if nobody wants to make the picture, don't waste your money'," he recalled.

Instead, he produced one of Michael Curtiz's last films, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960), and in 1965, directed The Young Lovers, starring Peter Fonda.

Up until the mid-1970s, most of his energy was taken up with managing the affairs of his parents and it was only after their deaths that he was able to move out of his father's shadow. As an independent producer he financed or distributed an impressive series of cerebral and often controversial films. His company was also involved in the production of TV shows, including American Gladiators, proof, Goldwyn joked, that he was not "just hanging out at Croatian film festivals". In the late 80s, he produced two Academy Award ceremonies, including the 1987 ceremony in which a 79-year-old Bette Davis presented an award to Paul Newman in such a rambling manner that the president of the Academy, Robert Wise, nearly went on stage to intervene.

Goldwyn's final production credit was for The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (2013), with Ben Stiller, a remake of his father's hit film of 1947.

His first two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Patricia, and four sons and two daughters.

Samuel Goldwyn Jr, born September 7, 1926, died January 9, 2015.

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