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Jerome Hellman, who won an Oscar for producing the only X-rated movie to ever win best picture, John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, has died. He was 92.
Hellman died Wednesday at his home in South Egremont, Massachusetts, after a long illness, his wife, Elizabeth Hellman, told The Hollywood Reporter. He suffered a stroke 12 years ago, she said.
Hellman also received another best picture Oscar nom for producing Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), winner of three Academy Awards.
He produced seven features during his career, also including George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient (1964), Irvin Kershner’s A Fine Madness (1966), Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust (1975) and Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast (1986).
The New York native also directed — and produced — Promises in the Dark (1979), starring Marsha Mason, after Schlesinger dropped off that movie. That was one of the first films made for the new Orion Pictures, launched by former execs at United Artists, home to Midnight Cowboy (1969).
Hellman was a former agent coming off the Sean Connery flop A Fine Madness when Schlesinger approached him about making an adaptation of James Leo Herlihy’s 1966 novel Midnight Cowboy. The book contained several scenes of homosexual sex.
“I thought that the relationship between the two guys was something that would work,” Hellman told Vanity Fair‘s Peter Biskind in 2010, “but that if there was any hint of homosexuality, it would be a catastrophe. I was a little embarrassed to say that, because when I met John, he was still carrying on this charade of being a straight man.
“In the little house on Peel Street, he had a guy living in the attic, but he never let me meet him. He told me I was not supposed to know that there was a guy scurrying in and out. So I knew he was gay, but he absolutely agreed with me [about Midnight Cowboy]. I said, ‘OK, look, it’ll be very hard to get money for it — we’ll have to work for nothing — but I’d love to try to do it with you.’ “
Hellman managed to secure a scant $1 million from United Artists head of production David Picker — he would be the only one Hellman thanked during his brief Oscar acceptance speech — and a screenwriter he hired to take the first crack at the adaptation turned him on to Dustin Hoffman, who was starring in an off-Broadway play called Eh?
“It was a one-character drama, a caretaker in the basement of a factory. And the caretaker was Dustin Hoffman. I was bowled over,” he recalled. “I went, ‘Oh, shit, this guy was born to play Ratso Rizzo.'”
Before Midnight Cowboy could be made, Hoffman had become a star for his performance in The Graduate. Hellman had to bump up his salary, then hired Jon Voight to portray Joe Buck; both actors would receive Oscar noms for their work.
Born on Sept. 4, 1928, Hellman served in the U.S. Marine Corps. He started out in show business as a talent agent at the Ashley/Steiner Agency, then began producing for television with Unit Four Productions, a company led by Hill and fellow directors Franklin Schaffner and Fielder Cook.
In addition to his wife of more than 20 years, survivors include his daughter, Jenny, and son, J.R.
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