John Calley Remembered at Sony Memorial

Al Seib/LA Times

Amy Pascal, Warren Beatty, Mel Brooks, Howard Stringer and Dana Delany were among the speakers at the event honoring the late studio head.

What could be a more fitting place for a memorial for someone who ran three studios than a soundstage?

Sony’s Stage 27, which once served as Munchkinland in the production of The Wizard of Oz, was the location for the John Calley memorial. He's died Sept. 13 at age 81. During his four-decade career, he'd run Warner Bros., UA and Sony. The stage’s walls were covered in black drapes with stripes of 25-foot-high blue canvas and the floor covered with a dark blue, synthetic turf. At the building’s east end was a brightly lit, elevated podium with three massive video screens behind it.

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The late-afternoon event drew roughly 350 friends, family and co-workers who included Robert Towne, Paul Masursky, James L. Brooks, Brian Grazer, Tony Bill, Bryan Lourd, David Foster, Pierce Brosnan, Stan Freberg and Annette Bening.

The memorial began with remarks from Sony co-chair Amy Pascal, who said, “If John was what studio heads are like, then we must be a classy bunch. But the truth is, there was no one like John Calley.” She noted that her former boss had a certain amount of “Hollywood cynicism, but he never let it get the better of him.”

She mentioned a long list of Calley’s likes and dislikes with top position going to “the bright yellow Rolls Royce always parked in front of Bijan. He’d yelled at it as he drove by.”

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Pascal introduced a video tribute reel with speakers including Norman Jewison, Michael Barker, Seth Greenland, Neil Winter, Maria Bello, Tom Bernard, Sid Ganis, Yair Landau (who said Calley was “not in it for his ego, but he wanted to succeed”), Akiva Goldsman and Natalie Portman, who said Calley’s advice to her was “don’t go after the money. It leads to loneliness. Do it for the love and a great life.”

There was also a clip of Calley giving this advice to filmmakers: “If you use your gut, and it’s a good one, you’ll do very well.”

Sony chairman Howard Stringer began by saying he wondered what Calley would say if he knew the film clips at his memorial were out of sync. What the honoree would say, he decided, was “So was I most of the time.”

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After noting that Calley ran the studio with “the maximum of taste and the minimum of tyranny,” he told the story first printed in the New Yorker of how Calley had once tried to hire someone to help him run Warner Bros. When the potential jobholder asked what his title would be, Calley offered him a title higher than the one he had. He said he could be worldwide head of production. When asked what his own title would be, Calley said, “I could be the assistant to the worldwide head of production.”  

The potential employee asked to think about it over the weekend, then turned down the job “because he couldn’t find the catch.”

It was a great story, except it was the same one Mike Nichols asked Warren Beatty to read when it was time for him to read the director’s prepared remarks. It put Beatty in an interesting position. He just went forward with telling the same story twice, but gave it an actor’s elocution.

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Screenwriter Buck Henry spoke of having a percentage of 1972’s What’s Up Doc?, which Calley told him to hold onto as it looked like the film would be a hit. Soon after, Calley went to Warners and then told him he should sell his What’s Up share to the studio.

Henry asked why he’d told him not to sell and Calley said that was before I became an executive at Warners. The writer told him he was keeping the shares because “he preferred the advice of Calley the friend.”

Mel Brooks spoke about a conversation he’d had with Calley over making Blazing Saddles and a scene where an old lady was beaten up -- “really, really beaten up” -- made him nervous. Calley told him to go for it. “If you go up to the bell,” he said, “ring it.”

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Dana Delany talked about how much Calley loved women and how much they loved him because “he accepted you for what you are. He didn’t want you to change.”

She said their last conversation was him asking “will we love each other always?”