Jerome Hellman, the producer of landmark films such as Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home has died. The Oscar winner’s wife, Elizabeth Empleton Hellman, confirmed Hellman’s May 26 passing saying simply, “we will miss him terribly.” He was 92.
Hellman’s films helped define the “New Hollywood” of the 1970s. He tended to work repeatedly with a circle of top-notch collaborators and the films Hellman produced came from iconic directors such as John Schlesinger, Hal Ashby, George Roy Hill, Irvin Kershner and Peter Weir.
That Hellman would win Best Picture for Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy in 1970 was, at the very least, improbable. Hellman was going through a tough divorce. The film was based on a little-known novel. Schlesinger didn’t think Dustin Hoffman was right to play Ratso Rizzo. But Hellman fought for the Graduate actor. Also, the film was X-rated and dealt with homosexuality, prostitution and a gritty slice of America rarely seen on the big screen.
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But the timing was right, and the low-budget masterpiece went on to big box office returns and three Academy Awards, including Hellman’s Best Picture win, Director for Schlesinger and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium for Waldo Salt.
“I was so sure we weren’t going to win I didn’t even prepare a speech,” Hellman told the Los Angeles Times’ Patrick Goldstein in 2005. “I probably only said 10 words. It must’ve been the shortest speech in the history of the Oscars. I didn’t thank John [Schlesinger] or the actors or my mother or father.”
Schlesinger didn’t take it personally. In 1975, he re-teamed with Hellman for an adaptation of Nathaniel West’s great Hollywood novel, Day of the Locust, starring Donald Sutherland, Karen Black and Burgess Meredith. That film was nominated for two Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for Meredith.
Hellman struck gold again with his next picture, Coming Home. The Hal Ashby-directed film was both a critical and commercial success. Like Midnight Cowboy, it was made on a modest budget — estimated at $3 million — and delivered $32 million at the box office. Like Midnight Cowboy, it seemed to capture the zeitgeist with its story of a military wife (Jane Fonda), who falls for a wheelchair-bound Vietnam War vet (Jon Voight) whom she meets while her husband (Bruce Dern) is deployed in Vietnam. Like Midnight Cowboy, the film won three Oscars, including Best Actor, Actress and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, which was shared in part by Midnight Cowboy collaborator Waldo Salt. Hellman also received a Best Picture nomination for the film.
The producer followed that success with his directorial debut. Promises in the Dark was supposed to be another reunion with Schlesinger, but when the director fell out and the project languished, Hellman took up the reins himself. The film became one of the first from Orion Pictures. Like all Hellman projects, the film had a stellar cast, including Marsha Mason, Ned Beatty and Susan Clark, but it was not well received. The new York Times’ Vincent Canby called it “blandly written, directed and acted.” It was six years before Hellman made another film.
That next project was based on Paul Theroux’s novel, The Mosquito Coast — subject matter which has recently been revisited as an Apple+ series. Hellman reportedly bought the rights to the novel as soon as it was published in 1981. Jack Nicholson was originally offered the lead, but declined. The film’s financing also fell out.
While Hellman sought to reinvigorate the project, Weir went and made Witness with Harrison Ford, whose interest was sparked by the project. Hellman then found financing via Saul Zaentz and distribution through Warner Bros.
The film was neither critically nor financially successful but, like another Ford-starring movie from the ’80s — Blade Runner — its stock has risen.
Importantly, the film included the last big-screen performance from Butterfly McQueen, who won an Oscar for Gone With the Wind in 1940. It was also the last film that fellow Oscar-winner Heller produced.
His other producing credits include George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient in 1964, and Irvin Kershner’s A Fine Madness in 1966.
Heller’s only role as an actor came in Ashby’s 1979 classic Being There alongside Peter Sellars who had starred 15 years earlier in Heller’s producing debut, Henry Orient.