Spike Lee Pays Tribute to Tom Pollock: "The Unsung Hero" of 'Do the Right Thing'

ONE TIME USE ONLY -Spike lee and Tom Pollock-Pollock  and Spike Lee at a 2009 screening of Do the  Right Thing.-SHUTTERSTOCK - H 2020
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George Lucas, Frank Marshall, Martin Scorsese and AFI chief Bob Gazzale also remember the former Universal chief, who died Saturday at age 77, as a "good man" who "always thought about the human side of the business."

Spike Lee, George Lucas, Frank Marshall, Martin Scorsese and AFI chief Bob Gazzale pay tribute to Tom Pollock, the former chairman of Universal Pictures, who died Saturday night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles following a heart attack. Pollock, who was 77, also served as chairman of the American Film Institute and co-founded the Montecito Picture Co.

Spike Lee:

My deep condolences to Mr. Tom Pollock's family. He was a key figure in my development as a young filmmaker while he was head of Universal Pictures. He let me make and supported my films. He was the unsung hero of Do the Right Thing — he put his neck on the line. He did not cave in when many racist pundits told him not to release the movie in the summer for fear Black folks would run amok, would riot coming out of movie theaters. Despite tremendous pressure, Mr. Pollock stood his ground, releasing Do the Right Thing on June 30, 1989 (the same day as Tim Burton's Batman), and so helped change the her/history of American cinema. I will miss you, my friend.

George Lucas:

When I was a USC film student nearing graduation, I was looking for a lawyer, and Tom Pollock was searching for clients in film schools. Sounds like a movie in itself … probably a comedy.

He was just starting his law firm with Jake Bloom, and I hadn't directed anything outside of school yet, but he had seen some of my student films and ended up representing me along with many of my friends as we all grew larger careers and professional organizations.

Tom was an important adviser in pretty much everything I did and was responsible for the development of Lucasfilm Ltd. He was always good-natured but serious when he had to be.

He negotiated the contract that gave me some control over Star Wars licensing and the film sequels. On The Empire Strikes Back, Tom actually developed a distribution contract and presented it to the studio rather than the other way around. That was probably one of the only times that has successfully happened; nobody had done it before — and it likely won't happen again.

Needless to say, Tom was very creative both in his own work and his steadfast belief in and defense of the creative voices of others. He wouldn't automatically say no or try to explain why something wouldn't be possible — he'd barrel toward whatever challenge was ahead of us.

We were like-minded in what we were doing. Yes, it sounds like a buddy movie. He was a good friend and, most importantly, a good man.

Frank Marshall:

Tom was unique in shifting from being one of the top entertainment lawyers in the business to running a studio to being a producer. Who's done that?

He loved movies. That's why he was so great at the AFI because he loved movies and was empathetic to filmmakers.

Way back in 1978, I was doing a movie with Larry Gordon and Walter Hill. It was called The Last Gun. I can't remember what company it was with, but they reneged, shut us down and refused to pay us. Larry said, "Let me introduce you to Tom Pollock." He introduced us, and I got my money.

That's when I realized it might be a good thing to have a really smart lawyer.

He represented me for 10 years and then moved to the studio [in 1986]. He went from being my lawyer to being my boss. It was fantastic to work at Universal because of his passion for movies. He was so smart and so kind, and he had a great sense of humor. He was always so warm and loved the process of making movies.

Maybe it was because I had been one of his clients, but he always took care of me. He always thought about the human side of the business, which is rare.

Martin Scorsese:

Tom Pollock was a legend. In the years when we were making movies together, he was always encouraging, supportive and truly respectful of the work I was trying to do, and that goes for several other filmmakers as well — it's difficult to express just how rare these qualities are in a studio executive. Our relationship began with The Last Temptation of Christ, and he went to bat for the picture, never backed down through all the controversy. That year, 1989, Universal also had Born on the Fourth of July and Do the Right Thing, which were also very tough pictures — that showed real courage on his part. And after everything that happened with Last Temptation, he gave me a home at Universal. He had a genuine respect for artistic ambition in moviemaking.

Bob Gazzale:

I'd arrive at breakfast a few minutes early — to find Tom had already read the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. He was hungry to know. It's what fueled his elegantly earned title of "Power Lawyer." And, from where I sat, every ounce of his brilliant legal mind was in service to helping filmmakers tell their tales.

But what really set Tom apart from those who tower in this town is that he never lost his unadulterated joy for the movies.

One afternoon in 2002, he and I enjoyed the gift of an advance screening of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. An audience of two, three rows apart. When Gandalf began to whistle across an open plain and a brilliant white stallion enters the frame, Tom could not contain himself. He raised his hands above his head and yelled, "Shadowfax!"

There in the dark, unbridled elation, and an exclamation that will forever echo in my memory of AFI's wizard, Tom Pollock.

A version of this story appears in the Aug. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.