Robert Halmi Sr., Legendary TV Producer, Dies at 90

AP Images/Invision

Often working with his son, the television impresario founded RHI Entertainment and spearheaded big-budget, star-laden telefilms based on great literary works and history.

Robert Halmi Sr., the master showman behind such big-budget made-for-TV movies as The Josephine Baker Story and Gulliver’s Travels, died Wednesday in his New York City home from a brain aneurysm. He was 90.

Halmi, once a leading magazine photographer, founded RHI Entertainment in 1979, sold it to Hallmark in 1994 for $378 million (plus the assumption of $50 million in debt) and then bought it back in 2006. He produced more than 200 films and miniseries for television during his career, and his projects were honored with 136 Emmy Awards (from an astonishing 480 nominations).

Halmi, often working with his son, Robert Halmi Jr., also brought to the small screen star-studded adaptations of The Odyssey (starring Armand Assante), Don Quixote (John Lithgow), Moby Dick (Patrick Stewart and Gregory Peck), Crime & Punishment (Ben Kingsley and Patrick Dempsey), Alice in Wonderland (Tina Majorino and Whoopi Goldberg), Animal Farm (Pete Postlethwaite and Kelsey Grammer) and Streets of Laredo (James Garner and Sissy Spacek).

Other projects included The Ten Commandments (starring Dougray Scott and Omar Sharif), Arabian Nights (John Leguizamo and Rufus Sewell), Noah’s Ark (Jon Voight and Mary Steenburgen), The Lion in Winter (Glenn Close and Stewart) and Forbidden Territory: Stanley’s Search for Livingston (Nigel Hawthorne and Aidan Quinn).

After the Halmis repurchased the company, RHI was bogged down by debt and entered Chapter 11 proceedings in 2010, wiping away more than $300 million in red ink. After the company emerged from bankruptcy, Halmi Jr. exited as president and CEO in July 2011.

Halmi Sr. stuck around and entered into a new long-term production agreement at RHI, but his brand of big-budget, family-friendly movies and miniseries was quickly becoming an endangered species.

In 2012, he started The Halmi Co, which quickly went into production of several projects. Three weeks ago, filming began on Olympus, a 13-part series for Syfy.

A freedom fighter in his native Hungary during a tumultuous time, Halmi was captured by the Nazis, jailed and sentenced to death. Through contacts he made when he worked with the OSS (now the CIA) in Budapest, Vienna and Salzburg, he was able to escape to the U.S. in 1951, arriving with $5 and a Leica camera.

For two decades, Halmi’s photographs appeared in such magazines as Life, Sports Illustrated, True and Outdoor Life. He then turned to the television business.

The Josephine Baker Story (1991), which starred Lynn Whitfield as the vaudeville star, earned five Emmy Awards, as did Gulliver’s Travels (1996), with Ted Danson and Steenbergen.

Other Halmi event productions include Gypsy (starring Bette Midler), Scarlett (Timothy Dalton), Merlin (Sam Neil), The 10th Kingdom (Kimberly Williams, John Larroquette and Dianne Wiest) and the series Dinotopia.

Tin Man, starring Zoe Deschanel, Alan Cumming and Richard Dreyfuss, was the highest-rated miniseries of 2007 and received nine Emmy noms.

Other recent projects included the Peter Pan prequel Neverland, starring Rhys Ifans, Anna Friel and Bob Hoskins, and Treasure Island, with Eddie Izzard, Elijah Wood and Donald Sutherland).

In addition to his son, survivors include his wife Caroline, three other children and 13 grandchildren. Services are expected to be held in New York next weekend.

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