Gerry Lewis, Marketing Exec and Lifelong Spielberg Confidant, Dies at 91

Gerry Lewis - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Amblin Partners

The London native was an early champion of 'Duel' and publicized other classics like 'Rosemary's Baby,' 'Love Story' and 'The Godfather.'

Gerry Lewis, the British marketing and publicity expert who promoted such films as Alfie, Love Story and The Godfather before spearheading international campaigns for Steven Spielberg efforts from Duel to Ready Player One, has died. He was 91.

Lewis died Jan. 5 in London, a spokeswoman for Spielberg's Amblin Partners announced.

Lewis had done PR for the famed Rank Organisation and British Lion Films in his country and for Paramount before he joined the fledgling Cinema International Corp. (later United International Pictures), a joint venture set up by Paramount and MCA/Universal in the early 1970s to distribute and promote their films overseas.

While working to publicize Universal disaster movies including Airport (1970) and Earthquake (1974), Lewis also brought many of the studio's television "Movies of the Week" to Europe. One of those was the road thriller Duel (1971).

Lewis championed the film and its 20-something helmer and organized a private critics' screening, from which Sunday Times critic Dilys Powell gushed that "[Spielberg] could be that rarity among directors, a born entertainer — perhaps a new generation's Howard Hawks … Duel is one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies."

Lewis launched a release for the film in Europe, Asia and Australia, where it played in theaters in 1972-73. He also took Spielberg around Europe — the filmmaker's first time outside the continental U.S. — and helped overseas audiences spark to Spielberg pictures during the next five decades.

"Gerry was a wealth of knowledge, he loved movies and filmmakers, and his understanding and respect of culture and the diversity of cultures made him invaluable to the distribution of movies internationally," Spielberg said in a statement. "He was really there for me before anyone else and truly was the first member of the 'movie family' that grew around me after Duel. He was an integral part of so many unforgettable moments of my career, and I will miss his wonderful smile and his sage advice."

Born in April 1928 in Battersea, southwest London, Lewis grew up above his father's clothes shop. He started out as a journalist in 1944 and wrote a film column that got him access to press screenings and the likes of Alfred Hitchcock.

Lewis took an interest in the PR side of the business and, after looking after such singers as Frankie Laine, Vera Lynn and Guy Mitchell, he began a six-year stint as a unit publicist for Rank out of Pinewood Studios in 1954.

At Rank, he became friends with Dirk Bogarde and Peter Finch, helped oversee the wedding of studio matinee idols Anthony Steel and Anita Ekberg — they married in Rome during the filming of Checkpoint (1956) — and worked with Orson Welles on Ferry to Hong Kong (1959).

He joined British Lion Films, where his first job for the company was as unit publicist on Tony Richardson's The Entertainer (1960), starring Laurence Olivier. The studio developed a reputation for producing the gritty "kitchen sink" dramas of the day while he was there.

For one of his last campaigns for Lion, he unleashed a batch of deadly mutants at Cannes for Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965). The stunt caught the attention of execs at Paramount, who then put Lewis to work on The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965), starring Richard Burton, and the Michael Caine breakthrough Alfie (1966). The Beatles and The Rolling Stones attended Alfie's launch party, and the Swingin' London event made the cover of Time magazine.

Lewis then headed campaigns for other Paramount movies like Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park (1967) and The Odd Couple (1968), Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), the Caine-starring The Italian Job (1969) and Arthur Hiller's surprise smash Love Story (1970).

Following a brief stop at British music and entertainment group EMI, Lewis segued to CIC, where he got to choose the films he would work on. His first job: designing the poster and publicity campaign for Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1971).

Years later, he worked for DreamWorks, leaving in 1999 to focus on the marketing of Spielberg films.

Said Lewis: "There is no great science to marketing. You marshal your resources accordingly … [and] it's all down to two things — timing and zeitgeist!"

Survivors include his wife, Sheridan; sons Paul and Tom; sister Shirley; grandsons Max and Charlie; daughter-in-law Sandy; stepchildren Kevin and Jessica; step-granddaughters Agnes and Elsa; and former wives Estelle Lewis and Val Lyon.

Donations in his memory can be made to the Marie-Curie Hospice in Hampstead, England.