Gene Allen, Former President of the Film Academy, Dies at 97

Gene Allen - H 2015
AP Images

Gene Allen - H 2015

He was a production designer and art director who won an Oscar for his work on 'My Fair Lady,' one of many films on which he collaborated with director George Cukor.

Gene Allen, a three-term president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and an Oscar-winning art director, died Wednesday from natural causes, publicist Leonard Morpurgo announced. He was 97.

Allen, who lived in Newport Beach, Calif., received his Oscar for his work as an art director on My Fair Lady (1964), director George Cukor's adaptation of the Broadway musical that starred Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison on the big screen, and he earned other nominations for A Star Is Born (1954) and Les Girls (1957) — two other Cukor musicals.

In fact, he collaborated many times with the famed director during the course of almost two decades. “We worked together as a team. When one stops and the other starts, I don’t know,” Cukor once said.

Allen headed the Academy from 1983-85; he succeeded Robert Wise and was replaced by Fay Kanin.

In 1997, Allen received a Special Achievement Award from the Art Directors Guild, where he served as executive director from 1970 though 1997.

“Gene Allen displayed verve and brio in his 27 years leading the Art Directors Guild,” said ADG executive director Scott Roth, who succeeded Allen at the guild. “Add to this his service as an IATSE vice president, president of the Motion Picture Academy and his multiple Oscar nominations (and wins) for art direction, and you’re looking at a protean career unlikely soon to be matched.”
Added ADG president Mimi Gramatky: “Painting until almost the last day of his life, Gene was a consummate artist, leader and award-winner who made an enormous contribution to the field of production design and art Direction, for which we are eternally grateful.”
Allen also served as second-unit director and production designer for Cukor on A Star Is Born, the version that starred Judy Garland and James Mason.
Allen’s other production designer credits include The Chapman Report (1962), The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) — directed by Les Girls star Gene Kelly — and Peter Bogdanovich's At Long Last Love (1975). He also wrote the screenplay for Chapman, a story about sex in the suburbs.
His art director résumé sports the 1956 films Back From Eternity and Bhowani JunctionMerry Andrew (1958); and the 1960 pictures Let’s Make Love, A Breath of Scandal and Heller in Pink Tights.
Chapman Report, Bhowani Junction, Let's Make Love and Heller in Pink Tights were all directed by Cukor.
Allen was hired by the Warner Bros. art department in 1936 as an apprentice but was laid off. He followed his father by becoming a cop in the Los Angeles Police Department, then enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the start of World War II.
After the war, he taught at art colleges and got back into Hollywood when he was rehired by Warner Bros. as a sketch artist, working under the studio's Lem Ayres on A Star Is Born.
“After just a week or two of illustrating storyboards and set sketches, Lem had me attend a production meeting with Cukor and 25 or more members of the shooting company," Allen once said. "The entire production was discussed, and when it was about to break up, George Cukor asked if anyone had any additional ideas.
“I hesitated, remembering his long list of credits. Finally, in a very weak voice, I offered a story idea that related to a transition from the end of one scene to the beginning of another. I mumbled that it might add a little humor.
“Cukor studied me carefully, then said in a gruff tone that told me I might once again be an unemployed sketch artist, ‘You’re going to add a little humor to a George Cukor, Moss Hart script?’ I started to reply, but with Lem guiding me, I left by the nearest door.
“There was only silence on the way back to the art department. It wasn't until the next morning that I knew the result of my suggestion. On my drawing board were screenplay blue pages that spelled out my ‘humorous’ suggestion.”

Allen was a recognized water-color painter whose work was exhibited in many galleries, including at the ADG’s Gallery 800 in North Hollywood last year. “As long as I can remember I loved the feel of a soft-leaded pencil applied to a drawing pad,” he recently said.
He also was an avid sailor and owned various boats.
Survivors include his wife Iris and sons Pat and Mike (perhaps named for the 1952 Cukor film starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn?).
Details of a memorial service will be announced.
Twitter: @mikebarnes4