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David V. Picker, who served as the head of United Artists, Paramount and Columbia over more than a half-century in the film business, died Saturday night after succumbing to colon cancer at his home in New York, his longtime friend and former UA colleague Kathie Berlin told The Hollywood Reporter. He was 87.
Picker was born in New York on May 14, 1931 — and into the movie business. His grandfather, also named David V. Picker, ran a small chain of theaters that he eventually sold to Loews, the company for which his father, Eugene Picker, then got a job booking theaters, which enabled the young Picker to see a movie for free at virtually any theater in the Big Apple, a privilege he took full advantage of.
Most importantly, his uncle was Arnold Picker, who became a partner and executive vp international distribution at UA in 1951, the same year the old studio was risen from the dead by a pair of lawyers, Arthur B. Krim and Robert Benjamin, who, by bankrolling independent filmmakers and then staying out of their way during the filmmaking process, quickly began attracting top talent and raking in profits.
In 1956, having graduated from Dartmouth College and served in the U.S. Army, Picker got a job at UA in the advertising and publicity department. Two years later, he was made assistant to head of production Max Youngstein, and when Youngstein left the company in 1962, Picker was elevated to his position. Any questions about the role that nepotism had played in Picker’s rapid ascent at the company were quickly silenced by his major contributions in his new role.
Seeking a property for Alfred Hitchcock, he acquired the rights to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and fought for Sean Connery to star in the first adaptation, 1962’s Dr. No, which was ultimately directed by Terence Young and spawned a franchise that continues to draw masses — and bear the UA name — to this day.
The first film that Picker recommended UA’s partners finance from scratch, Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, a British production, became a giant hit and was awarded the best picture Oscar, becoming only the second non-American film to earn that high honor, 24 years after the first. (Richardson, who also produced the film, could not attend the ceremony, so on his behalf Picker accepted the statuette from Frank Sinatra.)
And, looking out for the United Artists Records and Music Publishing division, Picker recommended that the company make a low-budget documentary around a young British band that had impressed him, The Beatles. 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night, directed by Richard Lester, proved a blockbuster and helped to explode the Fab Four all around the world. UA and The Beatles reteamed on 1965’s Help! and 1968’s The Yellow Submarine.
UA, however, fell upon hard times thanks to a run of big-budget flops, including 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told and 1966’s Hawaii, causing shuffling in the top ranks. In June 1969, at just 38, Picker was made president and COO of UA, part of a wave of young executives in their thirties — others including Richard Zanuck, Robert Evans and Jay Kanter — who assumed positions of immense power in Hollywood as the old moguls began retiring and dying in the 1960s and 1970s.
Within a year, the company made — at the urging of Picker’s assistant, a young Larry Kramer — Women in Love, for which Glenda Jackson won a best actress Oscar; and Midnight Cowboy, which became the first X-rated film awarded the best picture Oscar. During Picker’s reign, UA also released John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1973).
Picker, an imposing 6-foot-2, was known in the business as a gentleman, as well as an expert packager and a man with a real eye for young talent. He cut a multi-picture deal with the comedian Woody Allen, whose only prior films had been the moderately successful What’s Up, Tiger Lilly? (1966) and Take the Money and Run (1969), and their partnership yielded Bananas (1971), Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972) and — released after Picker’s exit from the company in 1973, the year after Transamerica purchased UA and Picker decided he wanted to be a personal producer with a deal at the company he previously ran, just like Paramount’s Evans — Sleeper (1973), Love and Death (1974) and Annie Hall (1977), the last of which won the best picture Oscar.
Picker’s stint as a personal producer was fruitful — it yielded Bob Fosse’s Lenny (1974), among others — but was brief, as he went to work as Paramount’s head of production in 1976, under Barry Diller. Picker’s years at Hollywood’s oldest studio — where he took on a young assistant by the name of Jeffrey Katzenberg — were tumultuous, as Diller was focused on building movies around stars, whereas Picker, conditioned by his years at UA, always prioritized directors and material. Still, it was Picker who greenlighted Randal Kleiser’s Grease (1978) and Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980), the latter of which was awarded the best picture Oscar.
Picker left Paramount in 1979, returning to independent producing with Carl Reiner’s The Jerk (1979), which turned comedian Steve Martin into a movie star. He then briefly served as president of feature films at Lorimar Productions, where his output included another comedy classic, Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979); years earlier, Picker had given the go-ahead for Ashby, a film editor, to make his directorial debut with The Landlord (1970).
In 1985, Picker returned to the executive suite, hired by Columbia Pictures to serve as president of production alongside CEO David Puttnam. Picker, who drove to work every day in his station wagon, stayed on the job for just 30 months, during which he reunited with Bertolucci to make The Last Emperor (1987), which went on to win the best picture Oscar, but also taking some of the blame for the spectacular failure of Elaine May’s Ishtar (1987), which had been greenlighted by his predecessor.
In his later years, Picker continued to occasionally work as an independent producer, with credits including The Appointments of Dennis Jennings (1988), which was awarded an Oscar for best live-action short, and Nicholas Hytner’s The Crucible (1996), starring Daniel Day-Lewis. He served for several years as president of Hallmark Entertainment Productions Worldwide, tasked with ushering the company into the features business, and earning Emmy nominations as a producer of the company’s The Temptations (1998) and P.T. Barnum (1999). He was the Producers Guild of America’s East Coast chairman from 2004 through 2008. He was presented with The Producer Award at the Gotham Awards in 1998 and the Charles Fitzsimmons Award at the PGA Awards in 2008. And his memoir, Musts, Maybes and Nevers: A Book About the Movies, was published in 2013.
Picker is survived by his wife, the photographer Sandra Lyn Jetton Picker, and his sister, Jean Picker Firstenberg, the former president and CEO of the American Film Institute. He was previously married to — and divorced from — Caryl Schlossman, with whom he had two children, Caryn Picker and Pamela Lee Picker; and Nessa Hyams.
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