November 11, 2013 11:00pm PT by Scott Feinberg
Hollywood Legends of Past and Present Gather at Paramount to Remember A.C. Lyles
A.C. Lyles, a beloved employee of Paramount Pictures for more than 80 years who passed away at the age of 95 on Sept. 27, was remembered by friends and family at a memorial service on the Paramount lot on Monday afternoon.
Among those who packed the Paramount Theatre -- the lobby of which was decorated with photos of Lyles with everyone from Prince Charles to Elvis Presley to Shirley Temple -- were legends of Hollywood's Golden Age, such as Mickey Rooney, Jane Withers, Terry Moore, Ruta Lee and Anne Jeffreys, as well as a spattering of more recent stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and more than a few people from other walks of life whom Lyles had befriended over the years.
Lyles, it was noted throughout the ceremony, fell in love with the movies, generally -- and Paramount movies, specifically -- after watching the film Wings in 1927. A year later, at the age of 10, he began working as a greeter at the Paramount Theatre in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. And when Paramount founder and chief Adolph Zukor came through town, Lyles told him that he wanted to work for him in Hollywood. Zukor encouraged him to "keep in touch," and so Lyles wrote a letter to him every Sunday -- including one endorsed by Paramount/Wings star Gary Cooper when he passed through town -- until he graduated from high school and hopped a train out West. When he arrived at the famous studio gate, he asked to speak with Zukor, was waved in and eventually landed a job as his office boy. From there, he transitioned to work in the publicity department, eventually becoming publicity chief of the studio's B-movie division, and then became a prolific B-movie producer and eventually the studio's goodwill ambassador.
Frederick Huntsberry, COO of Paramount, opened the ceremony by describing Lyles as "Mr. Paramount" and noting that he was always "the best-dressed man" at the studio -- a theme that was echoed many times throughout the ceremony.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs recalled meeting Lyles in 1984, at the beginning of her 13-year tenure in Paramount's publicity department. She said that when Lyles first introduced himself to her, she noticed that there was "not a wrinkle in his clothes" and "not a hair out of place," and she quickly realized that she "was in the presence of a legend, a living history lesson of the Golden Age of Hollywood. (Past Academy president Hawk Koch also was in attendance at the event.)
Pam Gibson, Lyles' faithful assistant during the last seven years of his life, said she had never heard of him when she accepted the gig at Paramount, but grew to admire and love her boss as they worked together on a book about his life. Gibson also read a letter from former Paramount studio chief Sherry Lansing, a longtime friend of Lyles' who could not attend because she was traveling. Lansing said, "A.C. loved Paramount" and gave it "80 years of extraordinary service." Gibson then played a portion of the videotape that Lyles made every visitor to his office watch before meeting them -- a glowing testimonial about Lyles from then-President Ronald Reagan, with whom Lyles became close during Reagan's years as an actor at Paramount, which was recorded from the Oval Office to mark the occasion of Lyles' 50th year at the studio.
The next speaker was Earl Lestz, Paramount's former president of operations, who said of the ceremony, "This is exactly what A.C. would have wanted, and he deserved every bit of it." He recalled his first day at Paramount, when he met with studio execs who told him over lunch everything that was wrong with the studio's operations, which left him feeling despondent. Then Lyles came over and introduced himself -- though, to this day, Lestz doesn't know how Lyles knew who he was -- and told him everything that was great about Paramount's operations, which turned his day around. "He loved everyone," Lestz said, "and never had a bad word to say about anyone."
David Milch, the veteran TV writer-director, said that Lyles was a "great mentor" of the sort that his father had urged him to seek out in life. After scoring hits with his shows Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, he met Lyles on the Paramount lot and came to admire him greatly -- so greatly, in fact, that he asked him to serve as a producer on his next show, Deadwood, a Western, Lyles' favorite genre. He said he took great joy in watching Lyles make the rounds of the set each day, befriending stars and crewmembers alike. He said he will remember Lyles "taking every person that he met as he found them, and thinking the best of them and helping them to think the best of themselves," adding, "A.C. was everyone's friend."
Then came Jacob Rajfer, a UCLA urologist who said that he met Lyles when Lyles came in for a routine checkup, and "a quick in and out turned into a quarter-century of friendship." Rajfer said that after he told Lyles, a staunch Republican, that he was a Reagan fan, Lyles began taking him as his plus-one to all sorts of industry events, at which "he always looked like he came out of GQ" and his "Bill Clinton charisma" endeared him to everyone. "No one who ever met A.C. ever forgot him," he said.
The final two speakers could speak more intimately about Lyles than anyone.
The first was his widow, Martha Lyles, who said of her husband of 58 years, "He would just love this." She noted that Lyles was almost always the last person to leave a room, as he enjoyed meeting everyone -- particularly after Saturday night screenings at the Academy, when, after a film ended, he would tell her, "I'll meet you downstairs," and then begin schmoozing anyone and everyone. "We had a lot of fun together," she said, and received a standing ovation at the end of her remarks.
The second was a middle-aged neighbor of the Lyleses, a man named Ben Wheeler, who read his eulogy from an iPad, something that Lyles had expressed an interest in being taught how to use for his own prolific eulogy readings -- he delivered 40-plus for other Hollywood luminaries -- but which Wheeler suggested he tackle only after learning how to access his voicemails. Wheeler then noted that Lyles' friends Reagan, James Cagney and Ralph Bellamy "threatened to end their friendship" with him unless he was smart enough to marry Martha, who he said was a wonderful wife. And he noted that he and Martha often laughed when people described Paramount as "A.C.'s second home," since it often seemed as if it was his first home. Wheeler then noted that he was a former hospice social worker and that, during Lyles' final weeks, "He faced up to his decline as I have never seen" -- but did say, with his trademark optimism and love for his job, "I can't wait to get back to the office as soon as I'm better."
As someone who was lucky enough to get to know and spend a number of unforgettable visits with A.C. Lyles over the last decade of his life, I would like to add my own two cents: A.C. Lyles was the definition of a class act. He possessed more smarts, humor, charm, positivity and lust for life and work at 95 than most people do in their youth. More importantly, he was kind to everyone -- even to a 21-year-old kid who rang him up one day asking to interview him on a summer trip out to L.A., and who subsequently stopped by his office regularly, often with friends so that they, too, could meet the man, the myth and the legend. I will think of A.C. every time I drive onto the Paramount lot for as long as I live. The place won't be the same without him.