Walter Mirisch, Oscar-Winning Producer of ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ Dies at 101

He served as Academy president for four terms in the 1970s and is the only person to receive the best picture prize and the Thalberg and Hersholt awards.

Walter Mirisch, the legendary independent-minded producer who is the only person to receive the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences’ Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, the Irving G. Thalberg Award and an Oscar for best picture, has died. He was 101. 

The affable Mirisch, who served four terms as president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences from 1973-77, died Friday in Los Angeles of natural causes, AMPAS announced.

“Walter was a true visionary, both as a producer and as an industry leader,” Academy CEO Bill Kramer and Academy President Janet Yang said in a joint statement. “He had a powerful impact on the film community and the Academy, serving as our president and as an Academy governor for many years. His passion for filmmaking and the Academy never wavered, and he remained a dear friend and adviser.”

Survivors include his son Larry Mirisch, the owner of The Mirisch Agency, the below-the-line shop that he founded in 1992. 

Mirisch earned his Oscar statuette in 1968 for producing the edgy thriller In the Heat of the Night (1967). His production outfit, The Mirisch Co., produced two other classics that took home the Academy’s ultimate prize: Billy Wilder’s poignant comedy The Apartment (1960) and Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ musical drama West Side Story (1961).

In the Heat of the Night star Sidney Poitier, in the foreword of Mirisch’s 2008 book I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History, called him a “legendary producer, visionary filmmaker, courageous seeker of truth, especially in troubling times.”

And novelist Elmore Leonard famously dedicated Get Shorty, his scathing 1990 satire of the film industry, to the producer: “To Walter Mirisch, one of the good guys.”

In August 1957, Mirisch, then in charge at Allied Artists, formed The Mirisch Co. with his older brothers Marvin and Harold, and they signed a distribution deal with United Artists. The company thrived, producing a wide-ranging slate of 67 films during the following two decades while collecting 28 Oscars.

Among those features: Some Like It Hot (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), The Pink Panther (1963), The Fortune Cookie (1966), The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Same Time, Next Year (1978).

In addition to In the Heat of the Night, Mirisch himself produced such films as The Man in the Net (1959), Two for the Seesaw (1962), Toys in the Attic (1963), seven-time Oscar nominee Hawaii (1966), Mr. Majestyk (1974), Midway (1976) and, earlier, a series of Bomba, the Jungle Boy movies in the 1950s (filmmaker Ron Howard has said he loved those films as a kid.)

Throughout his career, Mirisch worked with a variety of top directors, including William Wyler, John Ford, John Sturges, Blake Edwards and Norman Jewison.

Respected for taking intelligent risks and tackling social issues, Mirisch and his In the Heat of the Night colleagues were honored in 1998 by the Academy with a specially restored print in celebration of the film’s 30th anniversary.

The drama, directed by Jewison from Stirling Silliphant’s screenplay and starring Rod Steiger as a Mississippi lawman and Poitier as a Black detective investigating a murder in a racist southern town, won five Oscars in all.

“Even today, it has a lot to say to us,” Mirisch said during the 1998 ceremony. “Instead of mounting a soapbox and making speeches, it makes its point by dramatizing how a southern redneck sheriff and an eastern, Black detective are finally able to see one another not as stereotypes but as individuals.”

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Mirisch also served three terms as president of the Producers Guild of America and was the recipient of its David O. Selznick Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. He was given the Thalberg honor in 1978 and the Hersholt award in 1983.

In 1976, he was the recipient of the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, that organization’s highest film honor.

The Mirisch Co. entered television in 1959 with the Western series Wichita Town, starring Joel McCrea, and went on to produce such shows as The Rat Patrol and Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson’s Hey, Landlord. UA acquired The Mirisch Co. in March 1963, and the brothers continued to produce films and TV shows for the studio.

Mirisch led numerous initiatives to secure a successful future for the Academy, including establishing a new headquarters for the organization in Beverly Hills in 1975.

In a 2012 interview with The Hollywood Reporter on his final day as Academy president, the late Tom Sherak said Mirisch was invaluable in helping him make a decision to renegotiate AMPAS’ contract with the Kodak Theatre (now known as the Dolby Theatre), the home of the Oscars.

“I was concerned about where we [could] go and who would want us,” Sherak told THR. “And I’ll never forget, it was Walter Mirisch … who looked at me and said: ‘Tom, listen to me. It’s the Academy Awards. You’ll find a place to go. Renegotiate, Tom. Trust me.’ And that’s when I went to exercise our right to renegotiate.

“Then right away we started getting offers. We stayed there because that’s where we belonged. So it was Walter Mirisch who gave me the go-ahead in his own way to say go do it; somebody will want us, don’t worry. And he was right on.”

Born in New York City on Nov. 8, 1921, Mirisch received a B.A. in history in 1942 from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, winning a graduate fellowship in history. Despite his scholarly bent, he loved movies, hoping to get into the entertainment industry, but with no film schools in existence, he chose to attend Harvard to study business.

After earning a master’s degree, Mirisch landed his first showbiz job with a theater chain, learning about the movies from the exhibition side. He soon migrated to Monogram Studios in 1945, and his first credit as a producer was on the crime drama Fall Guy (1947).

By 1951, he was executive producer in charge of Monogram and its Allied Artists subsidiary.

Mirisch also had leadership roles with the Los Angeles Music Center, the Motion Picture & Television Fund, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and UCLA.

Survivors include his children, Anne, Andrew and Lawrence; his granddaughter, Megan, and her husband, Craig; and his great-grandsons, Emery and Levi. His wife, Patricia, died in 2005.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the MPTF.

Said Steven Spielberg in a statement:

“Walter cut a gigantic figure in the film industry, and his movies were trailblazing classics that covered every genre while never failing to entertain audiences around the world. He achieved so much in life and in the industry — if you live to be 101 and produced The Apartment, I’d say it’s been a good run — and Walter remained both a gentleman and an ardent advocate of good films while supporting multiple generations of dedicated filmmakers.

“Above all, he knew a good story when he found one and fought tooth and nail to get it on the screen. He loved the Academy as much as anyone in our history, serving four terms as president. I cherished our lunches in the Universal commissary over the years, and he was as generous with his advice as he was with his friendship. I’m both a better director and a better person for having known Walter.”

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.