John Calley died today at 81. During his career, he ran three studios; the last was Sony, where he served as chairman and CEO from 1996-2003. That’s when he worked with Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, who have spent much of the 2011 Toronto Film Festival celebrating their company’s 20th anniversary. (SPC also released “The Jane Austen Book Club,” which Calley produced.) Barker offered indieWIRE this remembrance of Calley and we’re proud to publish it. — The Editors
John Calley was a great man.
His contribution to film has been more profound than almost any studio executive in film history. He was a modest man who avoided taking credit for his amazing accomplishments. He was the studio executive who at Warner Brothers greenlit everything from Visconti’s “The Damned” and “Death in Venice” to Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” Can you imagine an film exec doing that before or since?
John Boorman told us “Deliverance” was greenlit on a handshake. Peter Bogdanavich said the same thing about “What’s Up, Doc?” Years ago, when I told Clint Eastwood at the New York Film Festival that I worked for John Calley, he smiled and said, “I love John. He is the most skilled and modest of men. You know, he is mainly responsible for ‘Dirty Harry’ and he has never taken credit for it. I guess the fact I know it and he knows it is enough for him.”
He was the best-read man I have ever met and I don’t know if he graduated from high school (he refused to talk about his younger years). He was a raconteur of major proportions and being with him was always a rich and tremendously fun experience. He was a champion of independent film. He was a champion for human beings. Tom Bernard, Marcie Bloom and I are living testaments of it. He arrived at Sony just when Marcie had a brain aneurysm in the office. He was key to the company’s fight with insurance companies on her family’s behalf and in some ways was responsible for her survival. If you told him that and thanked him, he would say, “Oh, please, move on.”
He protected Tom and my decisions in every regard. He was always there for us in our personal and professional lives. My favorite story about John is when we called him to tell him we were planning to do a Chinese art movie with martial arts about the empowerment of women called “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” He said, “Sounds great, but fellas, do me a favor, don’t tell anyone around here about it until the you’ve got the deal.”
A year later, we called him and said, “John, we’re doing a French documentary about birds flying all over the world, no story, but the director is great. His last film was about insects. We figure this one will be so much better because birds are a much better bet than bugs.” John’s reply, “Fellas, remember when I told you not to tell anyone about the martial arts movie, that goes double here.”
His humor was one of a kind. He relished every one of our successes and pretended we never had a failure. He was so special, so smart, an unbelievable man who often looked after your interests when you were never aware of it. He was a true-blue American individualist — low key, fearless, never afraid of anything. The people whose lives have been touched by him will never forget him. It is impossible to put into words the power he had over people, his charisma, his clarity in strategies of business and life. He was a class act, a great conversationalist and felt at home with people from literally any walk of life.
My colleagues and I have never met anyone like him. Knowing him, we feel we have truly been touched by the best of the best and were the recipients of a generosity and love that came with no conditions. We are privileged to have known him, to have worked for him and to have loved him. You really do have the feeling someone like him will never come this way again. We will miss him in incalculable ways.
His response to all this, of course, would be, “Oh, please, move on.”