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Ned Tanen, the former president of Universal Pictures who championed such groundbreaking filmmakers as George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis and John Hughes, died Monday of natural causes at his home in Santa Monica. He was 77.
The exec, who began his career as an agent with MCA, first moved into the music business, founding Universal City Records, before joining Uni’s motion picture arm. Between subsequent stints as a producer, he also served as president of Paramount’s Theatrical Motion Picture Group.
Tanen was president of Universal from 1976-82. He presided over two record boxoffice years: 1980 and 1982, which included “On Golden Pond,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.”
Born in Los Angeles on Sept. 20, 1931, Tanen graduated from UCLA in 1951 in international relations. He landed a mailroom job at MCA and in 1954 was promoted to agent. During the 1960s, Tanen supervised three of MCA’s record labels. He created Uni Records, which subsequently partnered with Decca Records to form MCA Records.
In 1971, Tanen acted as production supervisor on Milos Forman’s “Taking Off,” which led to his move to MCA’s film division. “I didn’t really want to get into the film business, but that’s where they put me,” he said.
During Tanen’s early years at Universal, the studio was known for B-movies but awoke to the potential of the so-called youth audience, which became Tanen’s specialty. He greenlighted such boxoffice hits as “Jesus Christ, Superstar” and “American Graffiti.” Propelled by the great successes of “Jaws” and “Animal House,” he was elevated to higher posts, becoming president of Universal’s motion picture division.
He resigned from Universal in December 1982 amid the success of “E.T.” Citing “burnout,” he told the Wall Street Journal he was tired of playing the “Hollywood game.”
But Tanen couldn’t leave the film business that easily. He took on producing roles in three “Brat Pack” productions: For Universal, he produced Hughes’ “The Break¬fast Club” and executive produced “Sixteen Candles”; for Columbia, he exec produced Joel Schumacher’s “St. Elmo’s Fire.”
Tanen moved to Paramount in 1984. The studio finished No. 1 in 1986 and 1987, and Tanen’s slates included such hits as “Top Gun” and “Ghost.”
During the 1980s, he resisted the hot trend of “high-concept films,” telling the New York Times in 1984 that he “preferred a real concept and a script that would make people leave a theater — hopefully after a movie and not during it — feeling satisfied.”
“Ned was an inspiration to a whole generation of us who inspired to be like him,” Sherry Lansing, the former CEO of Paramount Pictures, said. “He was one of the best studio heads there ever was. He taught me about integrity, that it was never about the flavor of the month, that it was always about the talent. And he had a wicked sense of humor.”
Tanen retired from the executive suite at Paramount in 1988 but re-emerged as a producer in the ’90s to sign a production deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment, producing via his Channel Films “Guarding Tess,” “Cops and Robbersons” and “Mary Reilly.”
He is survived by his partner, Donna Dubrow; his daughters, Tracy James and Sloane Tanen; and grandchildren Coco, Harry and Nicholas.
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