Spotlight: John Calley


In 1980, John Calley did the unthinkable: He walked away from one of the best jobs in town, as a leading executive at Warner Bros., abandoning Hollywood to live in an East Coast mansion and sail around the world on his own boat.

Was he nuts? Was he having a nervous breakdown? Neither. He'd simply had enough, and no matter how hard Warners tried to persuade him to stay -- even offering to pay him a fantastic sum not to work for a rival studio -- Calley chose to exit the business altogether, a decision he'd stick with for the next decade.

The story is indicative of just how different Calley is from the run-of-the-mill executive. In an age that has seen Hollywood shift from the last vestiges of the studio system to a corporate world where the dollar is emphatically the bottom line, Calley stands out as individual who has somehow transcended the corporate game.

He returned to Hollywood in the early 1990s at United Artists and then Sony, but then left the executive suites again in 2003, opting instead to produce. Since then, he has accumulated some impressive credits, including 2006's "The Da Vinci Code" and the upcoming "Angels & Demons." But above all, it is his executive work that has earned him his stellar reputation -- along with a career achievement award at the 34th annual Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. Awards, to be presented tonight at the InterContinental Los Angeles.

Born in 1930, the son of a car salesman, Calley stumbled upon a job as an NBC mail boy, then rose to become head of production at Warners. There, he worked with some of the most inventive executives around, including Ted Ashley and Frank Wells, and oversaw films from 1973's "The Exorcist" to 1978's "Superman."

It was also there that he got to know Stanley Kubrick, whom he counted among his closest friends. Years later, when Calley had come out of his semi-retirement to run UA (a job for which he was recommended by pals Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer), he started to investigate one of the most talked-about Kubrick projects, a documentary on the life of Napoleon.

According to Calley's friends, Kubrick claimed no such project ever existed. But Calley knew that UA had commissioned a screenplay and sent a subordinate deep into the ground in an abandoned Kansas salt mine to see if the script could be found among the UA papers kept there. It was -- and if Calley had had his way, the movie might yet be made.

Calley joined UA in 1993, some 13 years after leaving Hollywood, during which time he had married David Lean's last wife, Sandy, and traveled around the world. At UA, he helped oversee a reinvigorated James Bond series. But Bond would come back to haunt him when Calley left UA in the late 1990s to become chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

There, he attempted to draw on Bond rights owned by independent producer Kevin McClory to launch a rival franchise -- which McClory himself had tried to do when he lured Sean Connery back to the role with 1983's "Never Say Never Again." Calley's attempt eventually succumbed to a lawsuit filed by MGM/UA, but it was a rare blot on his stellar reputation.

The Bond brouhaha hinted that Calley could play tough as well as urbane. But it is the urbanity that stands out. How many executives can commission a movie like 1996's "The Birdcage" while regaling you with stories about Luchino Visconti? How many can handle the intricacies of Bond while being on first-name terms with Federico Fellini? If other executives could be a smidgen more like Calley, Hollywood might be a very different place.