Back to IndieWire

Tom Pollock, Risk-Taking Ex-Universal Chairman, Dies at 77

Pollock stood by such controversial releases as Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" and Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ."

“Do the Right Thing”

Universal Pictures

Tom Pollock was not your ordinary studio chief. Trained as a lawyer, Pollock chaired Universal Pictures for nine years (1986 to 1996) and went on to partner with Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Picture Company, chair the Board of Trustees at the American Film Institute, and teach at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Pollock steered Universal through a rich and storied period, and took risks that many studio chiefs would not. He died of a heart attack on August 1.

At the studio, Pollock worked with many of the top directors in Hollywood: Steven Spielberg (“Jurassic Park”), Robert Zemeckis (the “Back to the Future” trilogy), Ron Howard (“Backdraft,” “Parenthood”), Ivan Reitman (“Twins,” “Kindergarten Cop”), Martin Scorsese (“Cape Fear,” “Casino”), and George Miller (“Lorenzo’s Oil”).

During Pollock’s Universal tenure, the studio garnered seven Academy Award Best Picture nominations, including winner Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” Miller’s “Babe,” Howard’s “Apollo 13,” Phil Alden Robinson’s “Field of Dreams,” Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July,” Martin Brest’s “Scent of a Woman,” and Jim Sheridan’s “In the Name of the Father.”

Tom Pollock, left, and Ivan Reitman attend the LA premiere of "Hitchcock" at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

Tom Pollock, left, and Ivan Reitman attend the LA premiere of “Hitchcock.”

Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

Pollock brought in emerging talent too, including Jon Avnet (“Fried Green Tomatoes”), Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused”), and Sam Raimi (“Darkman,” “Army of Darkness”), and made four films with Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing,” “Mo’ Better Blues,” “Jungle Fever,” and “Crooklyn”).

Several films under Pollock’s watch faced controversy. He had to white-knuckle through the trouble-plagued production of Kevin Reynold’s dystopian $175-million “Waterworld,” starring Kevin Costner, which went notoriously over-budget, but eventually eked out $264 million worldwide in 1988, if not a profit. In 1988, Pollock received death threats and hired bodyguards after Scorsese’s adaptation of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel “The Last Temptation of Christ” sparked protests and the bombing of a French cinema that injured 13 people. Even after that nerve-wracking experience, Pollock stood up for Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” when exhibitors were fearful that the film would spark riots. The film opened without incident.

“They don’t make guys like that anymore,” Lee once told me. “Tom Pollock had my back. There was pressure on Tom Pollock not to release ‘Do the Right Thing,’ to at least wait until the summer was over, when black folks were going to run amuck. I always tip my hat to Tom Pollock. I have nothing but love for Tom Pollock.”

In 1993, Pollock joined 20 other Hollywood executives on a Colorado River rafting expedition organized by Jeffrey Katzenberg, and emerged unscathed, even though he was in less-than-perfect physical shape, and lost his glasses when he was knocked out of the raft. Nonetheless he came up smiling. 

Before he joined Universal, Pollock made a name for himself as the attorney who brokered the influential billion-dollar “Star Wars” deal for George Lucas, who retained rights to the franchise. Throughout his career, Pollock was a teacher and mentor to all, always happy to share his knowledge of the business. And he was a good boss, said former Universal publicity chief Bruce Feldman, who remembers arguing with Pollock about taking “Reality Bites” to the Sundance Film Festival. Pollock was afraid it would limit the film’s potential. “It’s your call,” he said. After the film broke out big at the festival, Pollock called Feldman and said, “You were right.”

Alphaville Productions’ Sean Daniel (“The Mummy”), who stayed close with Pollock after he left the studio, wrote in an email: “He was brilliant, funny, stubborn, impossible, maddening and courageous. We always say, sometimes too easily, how a person loved movies. Tom truly did, deeply and enthusiastically. The same way he loved his family, his work and his steaks.”

“We are incredibly saddened by the loss of Tom Pollock,” stated Ron Meyer, Vice Chairman of NBCUniversal. “He played a critical role in securing our studio’s legacy, and was an extraordinary executive, influential attorney, and a dear friend to so many of us…We will forever feel his impact on our company and within our industry. On behalf of everyone at Universal, we send our deepest condolences to his family and honor his extraordinary accomplishments.”

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Film and tagged , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox