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John Calley, who died Sept. 13 at age 81, was one of the rare studio executives to quit a top-ranking post. A recipient of the Academy’s Thalberg Award, he dominated Warner Bros. in the 1970s, then left the business in 1980 simply because he’d had enough. Calley — born July 8, 1930, in Jersey City, N.J., the son of a used-car dealer — returned to run United Artists in the ’90s, then took over Sony’s movie division. Along the way, he worked on such films as Catch-22, Dirty Harry and A Clockwork Orange; later pictures included Spider-Man and The Da Vinci Code. Actress Candice Bergen shares memories of one of her closest friends.
He first saw me at lunch with my parents in Beverly Hills when I was very young. He didn’t know who I was, and he followed us and took down the license plate and had the studio track it down! Then he found out I was the daughter of Edgar Bergen and was in fact 13. He waited a few years, and we became very close friends when I was 22 or 23 — always just friends.
He was piercingly intelligent and one of the funniest men I’ve ever met. He was also very discreet in his eccentricity but enormously complicated. He studied harmonics and the inner workings of the piano but couldn’t play it. And when we were neighbors in Benedict Canyon, he lived in what had been John Barrymore‘s guesthouse, and I lived in what was the aviary. I had a piglet, and it would commute between the two of us, but John spent the weekends with his curtains closed, wearing a flannel nightshirt and nightcap and reading scripts — his way to escape the constant sunniness of L.A. He would just burrow in and plow through scripts.
He was always reclusive, though he fought fairly feebly against it. But there was no one more charming — which was also to his disadvantage because it kept people at a distance.
He had a car collection and made a fortune trading cars and gold and boats in the early morning hours; he couldn’t lose money. He kept a collection of vintage cars in Vancouver but would not ever really drive them. And he was so generous. He would give his friends his boats to use, but he hardly used them himself.
He lived shockingly simply. The man had a fortune, but he lived in this apartment he loved in Century City; it was the most depressing, dark apartment, and the lobby smelled of old food. I kept saying, “John, why don’t you get a lovely place for all these people who visit you?” — because he had visitors constantly, usually women. He just thrived on deprivation in some ways. It was a small two-bedroom; that’s where he died.
I suppose that, like many of us, he struggled with his other self, but he succeeded. He was witty and never arrogant and intensely loyal. There was no one remotely like him.
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