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James M. Roberts, an executive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for 35 years and its executive director for almost two decades, died Monday from emphysema in Rancho Bernardo, Calif. He was 87.
A Toronto native, Roberts was hired in 1954 as the Academy’s controller. He had expected to remain primarily concerned with the organization’s finances, but after longtime executive director Margaret Herrick retired in 1971 and her successor suffered a stroke in the same year, Roberts was elevated to the top staff position.
Low-key, dignified and affable, Roberts won the respect of the Academy governors and of its staff, which more than tripled during his administration. He oversaw the move of the organization’s headquarters from a small Melrose Avenue building to its current Beverly Hills site. The late stages of his term saw the conversion of the former Beverly Hills “Waterworks” building into the home of the Academy’s Herrick Library.
Roberts retired in 1989.
Current Academy executive director Bruce Davis described Roberts as “ a man with such a light touch on the reins that many people didn’t notice how much directing was going on, or how deft it was. He was an enormous asset to the organization, and — not incidentally — a gentleman in the highest sense of the word.”
Roberts was preceded in death by his wife, Thelma. He is survived by their daughter Jana and granddaughter Jamie Michelle.
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