New autobiography offers movie 'History' according to Mirisch

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For those in manhattan or beyond on the sunny-weather hunt for a good book, you'd do yourself a favor to check out Walter Mirisch's new autobiography, "I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History" (great title, Walter!) from the University of Wisconsin Press.

Mirisch — a prolific producer, former Academy president, Hollywood mover and shaker and, above all else, a gentleman — emphasizes that when he and his brothers Harold and Marvin were bringing to the screen such now-revered films as "In the Heat of the Night," "Some Like It Hot," "West Side Story," "Friendly Persuasion," "The Pink Panther," "The Great Escape," "The Apartment," "Fiddler on the Roof" and others, they had no idea they were creating product that now seems destined for a Sphinx-like lifespan.

Mirisch's book makes for great reading because it's much more than a " … and then I wrote" saga. His moviemaking beginnings were humble, getting his start at the low-rent Monogram Pictures, a company so small it was only able to shoot one film at a time and did not have a sound department on the premises or a camera department anywhere, requiring producers to rent equipment when needed.

But he received invaluable training there, producing many Mono films, including a financially successful "Bomba, the Jungle Boy" series, before going on to become the head of the studio and, after a name change to Allied Artists, upgrading its product considerably by attracting such high-octane directors as John Huston, William Wyler and Billy Wilder to work there.

The book is jammed with nifty behind-the-scenes tales and anecdotes he has collected on and off the set. One of my favorites is about the one and only time Katharine Hepburn appeared on an Academy Award telecast.

Mirisch persuaded her to come and present an honorary Oscar in 1974 to producer Lawrence Weingarten. It turned out to be the kind of Oscar telecast that makes the history books and raises blood pressures — not only because of the Hepburn factor but also because the evening included a dying Susan Hayward making her final public appearance and a streaker behind David Niven.

It's but one lively recall in the life of the man who inspired Elmore Leonard to dedicate "Get Shorty," his novel about Hollywood, "To Walter Mirisch, one of the good guys."

Just in time for Tony

This is Tony deadline week, and three last potential sluggers are up to bat.

>The new musical "Glory Days," which opens Tuesday at the Circle in the Square, with book by James Gardiner and music and lyrics by Nick Blaemire, and directed by Eric Schaeffer.

>The Broadway premiere Wednesday of Carol Churchill's 1982 play "Top Girls" at the Biltmore, under the auspices of the Manhattan Theatre Club and directed by James Macdonald. It stars Oscar winner Marisa Tomei, Martha Plimpton and Mary Beth Hurt.

>And returning Thursday is the Roundabout's terrifically entertaining "The 39 Steps," now transferred to the Cort. It's still directed by Maria Aitken and has its amazing cast — Charles Edwards, Jennifer Ferrin, Cliff Saunders and Arnie Burton — who play all the parts in this scene-for-scene comic spoof of the famed 1935 Hitchcock thriller.

'Encores' away at City Center

The other big New York theater news of the week is the launch of the newest "Encores!" series season Thursday at the City Center with the concert staging of "No, No, Nanette," toplined by Sandy Duncan, Rosie O'Donnell, Charles Kimbrough and — in the title role — newcomer Mara Davi. It runs through May 12.

Robert Osborne is the primetime host and anchor of the Turner Classic Movies television network.
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