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John Calley Remembered: Hollywood Pays Tribute to the Late Studio Executive

Maria Bello and John Calley in 2006 - H
Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images
Maria Bello, left, and John Calley in 2006

Amy Pascal, Jeff Kleeman, William Friedkin, Maria Bello and Dana Delany share their memories of the man behind wide-ranging hits from "Catch-22" to "The Da Vinci Code."

Many in Hollywood are expressing their grief over the death of John Calley, who headed up three major Hollywood Studios.

Throughout his decades-long career, Calley, who died Sunday at age 81, was behind wide-ranging hits from Catch-22 to The Da Vinci Code. He also was honored with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in 2009.

On Tuesday, several in Hollywood -- including Amy Pascal, Jeff Kleeman, William Friedkin, Maria Bello and Dana Delany -- shared their memories of the late executive with The Hollywood Reporter. Candace Bergen also pays tribute to Calley in the new issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine, which hits newsstands Thursday.

In their own words:

AMY PASCAL, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment

John loved all kinds of movies. He loved directors. He supported filmmakers all of his life; that was the main thing. He was only going to [work as an executive] if it was fun. John lived life to the fullest. When he retired for the first time, he wanted to experience what it would be like to be on Fisher's Island, to have that kind of time. He rejuvenated, and when he was ready, he came back and made GoldenEye and Leaving Las Vegas and The Birdcage.

He brought me back to Columbia in late ’96. I worked with him for a long time. Working with John was incredibly inspirational, because he was a visionary, and he was a guy who made the movies that he liked. He was a firm believer in going with your gut and in supporting filmmakers.

Remains of the Day was a big success. He was also at the company when we made Men in Black, the first Spider-Man move, Air Force One and a lot of other big hits. I think John understood the movie business well enough to know that the only thing that matters is that you make hits. John will always be a part of Sony.

JEFF KLEEMAN, former executive vp at United Artists

When John first came to UA, he knew that decades ago Stanley Kubrick had written a screenplay for Napoleon, which was very near and dear to his heart as Kubrick had collected Napoleon’s letters.

One of the first things John asked me was to find it. But I couldn’t find a trace -- not coverage, not a treatment, only that a deal had been made to write it. So John called Kubrick, a very close friend, and said, "Stanley, I’m here at UA and I know you have an unproduced Napoleon script and I would love to read it." Kubrick laughed and said, very convincingly, "The reason you can’t find a copy is because I never wrote it!"

Some months later, we found there was a UA archive of 44,000 boxes in a salt mine in Hutchinson, Kan. A team was assembled that decided to don hard hats and flashlights and descend into this salt mine. It was one mile under the surface of the earth, and you had to take a nailed-together wooden elevator used to haul the miners in and out. We went down and found tons of fascinating stuff -- all the canceled checks from Heaven’s Gate and boxes and boxes of scripts. And on my second or third day, I tore open a box and there was a blue-covered script that said, "Napoleon, by Stanley Kubrick."

I couldn’t wait to call John. And finally I do, and John says, "Just fax me the first page," which I did. And John takes that page and, with no notes and no gloating, simply faxes it to Kubrick. Kubrick called immediately and said, "John, I don’t want to make it. Please let it lie." And Kubrick was John’s friend and respected that.

WILLIAM FRIEDKIN, director

John Calley was the very best film executive I've ever worked with. His comments and his support of The Exorcist made the film what it became. I'm forever grateful to him, I miss him and the industry has not seen anyone comparable since his retirement. He was a fine man as well as a fine filmmaker.

MARIA BELLO, actress

I was supposed to meet him at 9 a.m. and say goodbye, and he died at 4 in the morning. He was struggling in the last couple of years, but I have faith that he is playing jazz and dancing around with a lot of beautiful women somewhere.

John saw me in The Cooler and soon after said he needed to meet me; we ended up meeting and talked for five hours. This was eight years ago, and we were friends from that instant on, but we never worked together.

One of the first things he told me was that he realized the secret to life, and the secret is: There is no secret. Most people walk around thinking they are damaged in some way and have this secret they don’t want people to know, but the secret is that you are perfect the way you are.

He was an inspiration to so many people because he treated others with dignity and a sense of humor and knew they were perfect and lovely the way they were. He was a teacher in so many ways, incredibly human and incredibly spiritual – even though he would hate to hear that!

DANA DELANY, actress

We met for lunch at the Bel-Air Hotel years ago and it was an extraordinary meeting. He started talking and I had an overwhelming urge to cry, and I was sitting there trying to hide it in for the longest time. Finally, the tears started rolling down my face. I said, “I’m so embarrassed, but I’m feeling very emotional.” And he said, “I am too.”

We were soul mates, and I don’t know why. We had the exact same hands, and of course he had my father’s hands so I am sure there is something Oedipal there. We were inseparable ever since, and I was with him on Sunday right before he died.

He was ready to go. He had been sick for over two years. But He was not going to go until it was on his own terms. He didn’t take anything too seriously -- and that was one thing I loved about him: he had a sense of life and death in a way that was just natural.

A lot of people know he collected cars -- and part of that was because his father was a used car salesman in New Jersey, so it was a bit of his Rosebud. He kept buying cars right up to the end. And he bought this convertible Bentley and it was sitting downstairs in his garage, and about a month ago I said, “You still haven’t driven your Bentley! Come on, we’re going out.”

So we got into it and his two nurses were in the back and John was in the front — and as we were going downstairs, Laverne, a wonderful nurse, said: “Does the top go down?” And John said, “No, but the driver does!” He was John right up to the end.

TONY BILL, producer

John had no attachment to material things, which is interesting for a man who had so much material stuff in his life. But it came and went. He loved sailboats, loved ocean racing. He had what was literally one of the most beautiful boats in the world. It was a 65-ft. wooden yawl. He bought it in Sweden; had it delivered across the Atlantic; fixed it up for a couple of years. He got it as his ultimate boat, the one he said he was never going to sell. We were out sailing one day and he said, “I decided to sell the boat.” And I said, “You just did.” I had it for 20 years. He just wanted to go onto the next one. He had this beautiful house in Beverly Hills. Great house. After he got divorced, he sold the house to his friend and lawyer. He sold it with everything in it — and the dog. That's the quintessential John Calley story.