John Calley Dies at 81

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A memorial is being planned for the legendary film executive and producer at Sony Pictures Studios.

John Calley, who headed up three major Hollywood Studios and was behind wide-ranging hits from Catch-22 to The Da Vinci Code, has died. He was 81.

Memorial arrangements are being planned at Sony Pictures Studios. In lieu of flowers, his family asks that donations are made to charity.

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He is survived by his daughter Sabrina Calley and step-children Emily Zinnemann, David Zinnemann (Amy) and Will Firth from his marriage to Meg Tilly.  

Calley served as chairman and chief executive officer of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which he joined in 1996 following stints as studio chief at Warner Bros. in the 1970s and MGM/United Artists in the 1990s.

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He was honored with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in 2009.

"John was unique. As a friend he was always there and always funny. He made life a joy for those he loved," says Mike Nichols in a statement. "As a studio head he was unfailingly supportive and didn’t try to do the filmmaker’s job. When he believed in someone he trusted and supported him and when very rarely he  had  a suggestion it was usually a life saver. In fact  that’s what he was: a life saver."

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"The problem of making a comedy with John is that he was usually funnier than the actors," adds Buck Henry.

Says Sir Howard Stringer, chairman, CEO and president of Sony Corporation, "John Calley will be remembered  in the history of Hollywood as an extraordinary studio chief, who ran three studios with a maximum of taste and a minimum of tyranny. Even today, the quality of his movies still have contemporary resonance.  The Remains of the Day and A Clockwork Orange demonstrate vividly the twin contrasts of British society that together explained the riots. Catch 22 and The Americanization of Emily capture the unsettling ambivalence towards war you might expect from a former American soldier. Men in Black and Spider-man revealed he could partner with a younger executive like Amy Pascal and discover a whole new audience. But  John was more than a brilliant executive.  I’m not sure he would even like that title.  He was a wonderful raconteur, up there with Mike Nichols, Michael Caine and Peter Ustinov who could hold your attention for hours with rich anecdotes that capture the human dimensions of his beloved film industry;  love’s labors never lost as long as  he was there to remember them.  His sense of humor made us delighted when we shared his adventures, and envious when we did not.  Even in his lengthy illness he never lost his charm or ever felt sorry for himself.  Life without his friendship will be so much less joyous.  His generosity of spirit made those of us lucky enough to work with him feel we had a loyal and unique companion for life.  We did."

"John Calley was more than a mentor and boss he was the most extraordinary and generous friend," adds Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment. "He had a steely business mind and the soul of an artist.  His sense of humor about the business never made him cynical or got in the way of his passion for movies and directors.  John's taste may have seemed idiosyncratic  but his pulse was unerring.  How could one person have championed All the President's Men, Blazing Saddles, The Exorcist, Dirty Harry, Klute, A Clockwork Orange, at the exact right moment in time? Those are the instincts of a one-of-a-kind executive. He never pandered to the audience, he never accepted conventional studio wisdom and he never lost his enthusiasm. John was my guiding light. He taught me everything."

“John Calley was a genuine legend as an executive, producer and passionate lover of the art of filmmaking,” says Michael Lynton, chairman & CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment.  “We know the entire community shares in our deep sadness over his passing. He was an extraordinarily gifted man, whose grace, wit, sensitivity and intelligence were an inspiration to all of us and will be sorely missed. We will not see his like again.”

Calley was born on July 8, 1930, in Jersey City, N.J. He joined the entertainment industry at 21 after serving in the U.S. Army, first working in the NBC mailroom in New York City. He later held positions in sales, production and programming before becoming director of nighttime programming. He also served as vp of Henry Jaffe Enterprises, and Ted Bates advertising as vp in charge of radio and television programming.

His next move was to Filmways, where he produced movies like Catch-22 and Ice Station. He moved to Warner Bros. 1969, first serving as head of production, president and vice chairman.

In 1989, he came an independent film producer with Nichols, producing movies like Remains of The Day. In 1993, he joined MGM/United Artists Pictures as president and chief operating officer. In October 1996, he joined Sony Pictures Entertainment as president and CEO, overseeing such films as Spider-Men, As Good as It Gets, Men in Black and Air Force One. He retired in 2003.
He was a member of the board of the American Film Institute (AFI).