Ronald Schwary, Oscar-Winning Producer of 'Ordinary People,' Dies at 76

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Ronald Schwary

He had another best picture nominee with 'A Soldier's Story' and led six Sydney Pollack-helmed films, including 'Absence of Malice' and 'Tootsie.'

Ronald Schwary, the Oscar-winning producer of Ordinary People who guided other acclaimed films including A Soldier's StoryAbsence of MaliceScent of a Woman and Tootsie, has died. He was 76.

Schwary died Thursday in West Hollywood, his sons, Neil and Brian, announced. In 2015, he was forced to retire after struggling with a rare neurological autonomic disorder.

"Over the years, he fought hard to be the best version of himself that he could be, still constantly joking and laughing no matter how hard the day was," Neil said in a statement. "His zest for life still remained through the trials and tribulations of his disease."

Schwary produced six features directed by Sydney Pollack: The Electric Horseman (1979) and Havana (1990), both starring Robert Redford; Absence of Malice (1981), starring Paul Newman; best picture nominee Tootsie (1982), starring Dustin Hoffman; the remake of Sabrina (1995), featuring Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond; and Random Hearts (1999), also starring Ford.

Schwary also produced *batteries not included (1987), starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy; The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), directed by and starring Barbra Streisand; and Meet Joe Black (1998), which paired Brad Pitt with Anthony Hopkins.

"I like to do films that make you think," he said in a 2012 interview. "My films, you walk out of the theater and you can actually talk about [them]."

He also produced a Rolling Stones' 1982 concert documentary, Let’s Spend the Night Together.

After serving as an associate producer on the Jan-Michael Vincent horror film Shadow of the Hawk (1976), the Neil Simon-scripted California Suite (1978) and Electric Horseman, the Oregon native won his Oscar for Ordinary People (1980), adapted by Alvin Sargent from Judith Guest's 1976 novel. It was his first solo producing effort.

The drama, which marked Redford's directorial debut, starred Mary Tyler Moore as a frighteningly cold suburban mother who can't forgive her teenage son (Timothy Hutton) for living after his brother (her favorite son) dies. Redford, Hutton and Sargent won Academy Awards as well.

"As far back as 4 1/2 years ago, when Robert Redford acquired the novel, he strongly believed that this could be a very special film," Schwary said in his Oscar acceptance speech on stage. "This belief, along with his sensitive direction, was the inspiration behind the project. I want to thank Bob for giving me the opportunity to produce this picture, and I want to say he must come up here and share this with me. Bob, wherever you are, come on up."

Schwary landed another best picture nomination for his work on Norman Jewison's A Soldier's Story (1984), starring Howard E. Rollins Jr. Adapted from an off-Broadway play about racism in the U.S. Army during World War II, it lost out on Oscar night to Amadeus.

Schwary also served as an executive producer alongside Glenn Gordon Caron on the 2005-11 NBC series Medium, starring Patricia Arquette as a psychic, and on the CBS 1999-2000 drama Now and Again.

Born on May 23, 1944, in The Dalles, Oregon, Schwary was the second oldest of five children. At age 14, he wrote a letter to Cecil B. DeMille, asking for some stills from his favorite movie, The Ten Commandments. The famed director sent him a few and invited him to Paramount to meet him. Soon, Schwary was on a Greyhound bus for the pilgrimage from Portland to Los Angeles.

When Schwary arrived at the studio gates, he was told that DeMille was in the hospital, and he went home. Correspondence between the two continued until DeMille's death the following year.

Schwary graduated from Jesuit High School in 1962 and then USC with a business degree in 1967. After college, John Wayne, a fellow USC alum, paid the $218 for Schwary to take the assistant directors training program test to become a DGA trainee. When he didn't pass, the actor helped him get work as a stand-in for Hoffman on The Graduate (1967) and as an extra in Planet of the Apes (1968).

Schwary passed the test the second time, and in 1973, he won a DGA award for outstanding directorial achievement in a comedy series (shared with Gene Reynolds and Wes McAfee) for his contribution to the pilot episode of M*A*S*H.

Later, he served as second assistant director on such films as the Jack Lemmon-starring Save the Tiger (1973) and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974), starring Peter Fonda, and on the ABC series Kung-Fu before turning to producing.

He also was known for mentoring folks including Schindler's List producer Gerald R. Molen, actors Kate Mara and Eric Close, Supergirl producer Jessica Queller and film and TV producers/executives Jen Roskind and Laurie Seidman.

Schwary said he had to roust Al Pacino to get to work on Martin Brest's Scent of a Woman (1992), another best picture nominee. "With Al, it was like the tango," he said. "I had to actually go over and get him out of bed to go to rehearsal. He said, 'Aw, I'll do it tomorrow.' I said, 'Get your ass out of bed.'" 

Pacino, of course, went on to win the best actor for his performance as a blind retired Army officer.

Schwary was married to Emmy-nominated hairstylist Susan Carol Schwary from 1971 until their 1994 divorce. In addition to his sons — who worked in production and as actors — survivors include his brothers, Mitchell Jr., Dennis and Gary; his sister, Carol; and his grandson, Mars.