William J. Creber, Production Designer on 'The Poseidon Adventure' and 'The Towering Inferno,' Dies at 87

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William J. Creber

The three-time Oscar nominee also did 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' and the first three 'Planet of the Apes' movies in the 1960s and early '70s.

William J. Creber, the three-time Oscar-nominated art director and production designer who worked on the Irwin Allen disaster flicks The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno and the first three Planet of the Apes movies, has died. He was 87. 

Creber died Thursday in Los Angeles of complications of pneumonia after a long illness, publicist Rick Markovitz announced.

After the art director on George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) quit after a year on the job, Creber stepped up and went on to earn his first Oscar nomination for his work on the biblical epic that starred Max von Sydow as Jesus Christ.

As a production designer, Creber was nominated for Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Towering Inferno (1974) as well. He also collaborated with Allen, the famed producer known as the "Master of Disaster," on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (on both the 1960 film and the ABC series) and on ABC's The Time Tunnel and CBS' Lost in Space.

Director Franklin Schaffner told Creber that he would be perfect choice for art director on the apocalyptic classic Planet of the Apes (1968) since part of The Greatest Story Ever Told was filmed in the arid Glen Canyon in Utah/Arizona that has since been flooded by Lake Powell.

Creber then followed on the next two sequels in the original five-film series: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971).

"I can't recall a time in my life I haven't had a pencil in my hand," he once said.

The amiable Creber got a boost in the business from his father, Lewis Creber, who worked as an art director at the Fox studio starting in the 1930s and had credits including State Fair (1945), several Charlie Chan movies and all nine seasons of CBS' Perry Mason.

Survivors include his son, Emmy-winning art director and set designer Kenneth Creber (Melrose Place, Pushing Daisies, The Mentalist); his daughter, Carolyn; and his wife, Sally Queen.

"This was the man who designed and then flipped cruise ships, burned skyscrapers and created an entire ape culture," Art Directors Guild president Nelson Coates said in a statement. "Though his last feature was 21 years ago, Bill Creber remained a vital influence in the industry with his institutional memory, sharing of relevant production solutions and his amazing skills devising, executing and teaching incredible methods of in-camera visual FX."

William Creber was born in Los Angeles on July 26, 1931, the second of three sons. He once said that his earliest recollection of being on a set was when he was 5 and his dad was working in the Malibu hills on a Ritz Brothers movie.

Creber attended Louis Pasteur Junior High, Hamilton High and then Santa Monica City College, where he majored in pre-architecture. In 1951, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served for four years.

"When I got out I had been retrained in electronics," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2003. "By then I was married, and my dad kept saying, 'Before you go to [work] at Hughes Aircraft, you should call Fox and see if there is an opening.'

"A couple of weeks later I got a phone call from the chief draftsman offering me a job as an apprentice draftsman. It was pretty good pay compared to anything else at the time. The minute I was there I had kind of an affinity for it. You were able to go from the drafting room onto the sets and watch the directors work in the shadows."

Creber got a big break when he was hired in 1960 as assistant art director on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1960), which Allen directed as well as produced. Creber then worked on the 1964-68 ABC series adaptation that Allen created, using many of the sets from the film.

Creber also worked with Schaffner on Islands in the Stream (1977), starring George C. Scott, and Luciano Pavarotti's Yes, Giorgio (1982), which he considered to be one of his favorite films to make (it was filmed in Rome, San Francisco, New York and Boston).

He received an Emmy nomination in 1966 for his work on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Also on his list of credits is Rio Conchos (1964), Caprice (1967), George Cukor's Justine (1969), the Frank Sinatra starrer The Detective (1968), Stanley Kramer's The Domino Killings (1977), Any Which Way You Can (1980), Street Fighter (1994), Spy Hard (1996) and episodes of Mod Squad.

Creber helped redesign the Universal Studios backlot after it had been damaged in a fire.

He received the Richard Sylbert Outstanding Achievement in Production Design Award at the 2003 Hollywood Film Awards and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Art Directors Guild two years later (he was a former ADG president).

In October 2016, Creber was honored yet again, this time by the Hollywood Heritage organization and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

Details for a memorial service will be announced shortly.