Roger Mayer, Champion of Film Preservation, Dies at 89

Courtesy Everett Collection
Mayer with his Oscar as the Hersholt recipient in 2005.

The recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2005, he discovered negatives of great films melting away on the MGM lot and picked up the fight.

Roger L. Mayer, a former executive at Columbia Pictures, MGM and Turner who became a lifelong champion of film preservation, has died. He was 89.

Mayer, who received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2005, died Tuesday after suffering a heart attack at his doctor's office in Beverly Hills, his wife, Pauline, told The Hollywood Reporter. He was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
 
In 1996, Mayer became chairman of the National Film Preservation Foundation, which has helped rescue more than 2,100 orphan films since then. He also had served since 1992 on the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress which, among other duties, each December helps select 25 "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films" to be preserved. He remained active with both organizations until his death.
 
Martin Scorsese, himself a leading force in saving films, presented the Hersholt award to Mayer at the 77th Oscars. On Wednesday, the director said in a statement that “the film preservation community has lost a beloved friend.
 
“I met him early on when he was working for Ted Turner, and though we disagreed at that time about colorization, we shared the core belief that film libraries were of vital importance to our culture. Throughout his successful career in the industry, Roger consistently put the care and preservation of collections at the forefront.
 
“He was absolutely key in helping the Library of Congress establish the National Film Preservation Foundation in 1996, and over the years, he gave tirelessly of his time and expertise.”
 
 
 
When Mayer was at MGM in the 1960s, Ray Klune, who was the production manager on 1939's Gone With the Wind, walked Mayer over to the concrete vaults that contained the studio's film negatives on the lot in Culver City. Mayer learned that the films inside were deteriorating in the 100-degree heat of summer, so he instituted a preservation program that included the first air-conditioned, refrigerated vaults.
 
“At the time, television was prevalent, but companies were not licensing feature films to television,” he said in a 2005 interview. “The prospects for home video, satellite and cable were mostly unrecognized. Even theatrical rereleases were few and far between, with the exception of Gone With the Wind. The key element at the time was to convince management that money should be spent on preserving film and sound elements even though there seemed to be no substantial aftermarket.”
 
 
 
A native of New York, Mayer attended Yale and went to work as a lawyer primarily doing contract and copyright law at Columbia. He joined MGM in 1961 as an assistant GM and rose to become president of MGM Laboratories.
 
When Turner acquired the MGM library (which also included films from Warner Bros. and RKO) in 1986, he asked Mayer to run the operation. Later, Turner would be criticized for the "colorization" of such classic black-and-white films as Casablanca. Mayer retired from Turner in 2005.
 
Mayer, who also served the Motion Picture and Television Fund for years, executive produced several documentaries about showbiz legends and won an Emmy Award for the 2004 American Masters presentation Judy Garland: By Myself.
 
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