Hollywood won’t be the same without the smiling presence of
A.C. Lyles, who loved show business and the people in it. He never missed an
opportunity to make a speech or salute an old friend. A.C. died on Friday at
age 95, and spent most of his years proudly working for Paramount Pictures—as a
messenger, office boy, publicist, producer, and finally “good-will ambassador.”
When one of his closest friends, Ronald Reagan, was elected President of the
United States, he became the White House’s unofficial Hollywood liaison and
used his bulging Rolodex to line up guests for state dinners on a regular
I spent a number of years on the Paramount lot, and it was a
memorable experience to chat with A.C. in the parking area near the front gate,
where he kept his immaculate 1950s Thunderbird and made a point of greeting
everyone who came by, usually by first name. I’m sure some of them didn’t know
much about him or his background, but they appreciated the friendly gesture of
a Hollywood veteran who still had the good grace to dress in a suit and tie
every single day. (The only time I saw him otherwise attired was at a
Western-themed event like the Golden Boot Awards or the S.H.A.R.E. dinners,
which his wife Martha was so much a part of.) He always inquired after my wife
and asked about her by name.
If you were to judge A.C. by his screen credits alone you
might not be impressed. His main producing credentials were clustered in the
1960s, when he made a series of Western programmers on the Paramount lot, in
color, with titles like Law of the
Lawless, Stage to Thunder Rock, and Town
Tamer. But these modestly-budgeted films all made money (and continued to
yield worldwide profits for decades). More important, they gave work to a
galaxy of Hollywood veterans who were no longer at the top of the heap and
grateful for the work: Rory Calhoun, Howard Keel, Linda Darnell, Marilyn
Maxwell, Lon Chaney Jr., Kent Taylor, Broderick Crawford, William Bendix, John
Agar, Virginia Mayo, Scott Brady, Terry Moore, Dana Andrews, Barton MacLane,
and many, many others.
A.C.’s greatest allegiance was to Richard Arlen, the
handsome star of Wings whom he met
when he first came to work on the Paramount lot in the 1930s. Arlen was kind to
him, and the young office boy promised that someday he would produce movies and
feature Arlen in them. He made good on that promise over and over again.
A warm relationship with Paramount stalwart Jerry Lewis
several decades later enabled A.C. to get the comedian to sing the title song for
his 1960 Allied Artists release Raymie.
Friendship and loyalty were A.C.’s stock in trade. A
bachelor-about-town in the 1940s who dated many starlets, he finally settled
down with his wife Martha and they shared their happiest moments with two other
couples: the James Cagneys and the Ronald Reagans. Cagney gave A.C. his first
full producing credit on the only film the actor ever directed, Short Cut to Hell, in 1957. And when
Lyles needed someone to narrate his 1968 Western Arizona Bushwhackers, the retired Cagney agreed to do it.
writer-producer David Milch turned the tables on A.C. when he launched
production of the HBO series Deadwood
in 2004. Convinced that Lyles was the only man left in town who knew anything
about making Westerns—he even worked as an associate producer on Rawhide for one season—Milch insisted
that A.C. serve as a consultant for his series and sent a car to pick him up
every day and take him to the show’s permanent location at Melody Ranch. He was
in his 80s at the time and reveled in every minute of the experience.
He became an
unofficial historian for Paramount Pictures, where he maintained an office long
after he’d produced his last television show, but I got a particular kick out
of asking him about subjects that were off the beaten path. Once, when I needed
an anecdote for an article about cowboy sidekick Gabby Hayes I called on A.C.
and naturally he came through: he’d presided over several publicity tours for
Paramount releases in the early 1950s in which Gabby participated, and I got a
good story for my piece. He once told me about taking flamboyant character
actor Luis Alberni to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting!
He also took me to task for a piece I produced for Entertainment Tonight about shuttered
movie theaters; he felt that it sent a negative message about the movie
business. A.C. didn’t live in the past—quite the opposite—but he maintained an
unfailingly positive outlook about the industry he loved and the promise of
good things ahead. In his worldview there was no place for a discouraging word.
He may have seemed like an anomaly to some younger people at
Paramount, a glad-handing throwback to an earlier day…but that was part of his
charm. I’m going to miss him, and I know I’m not alone in that.