Daniel Melnick: Producer who gave 'Straw Dogs' and 'Midnight Express' the green light

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The Independent Online

The Hollywood film producer and studio executive Daniel Melnick was responsible for authorising the production of some notable movies, ranging from the controversially violent Straw Dogs (1971) to the joyous That's Entertainment (1974), which celebrated the wealth of musical treasures in the vaults of MGM.

He also spent periods as the production chief at MGM and Columbia, and co-produced some of television's most prestigious offerings, including The Ages of Man (1965), featuring John Gielgud reading Shakespeare, and a production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1966) starring Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock, who had created the leading roles in the original 1949 production in New York.

A man of sharp wit and taste, he was noted for his ability to stay afloat in the fiercely competitive world of the Hollywood mogul, and switched positions often and with a canny sense of timing. Not a man to suffer fools gladly, he alienated some of his employees – one of them recently likened him to the monstrous executive played by Kevin Spacey in the 1994 film, Swimming with Sharks – but was acknowledged as a man of perception and judgement.

One of his biggest hits was the television series Get Smart, a satire of James Bond-like heroes. Hiring Mel Brooks and Buck Henry as writers, he told them, "James Bond and Inspector Clouseau – those are the two biggest hits out there. Take a hint." Starring Don Adams as the bumbling secret agent, Maxwell Smart, the series won several Emmys and ran for six years.

Melnick was born in 1932 in New York City, and developed an early interest in theatre. His father, a Russian immigrant, was killed in a car crash when Daniel was nine years old, and his mother, who later remarried, enrolled him at the New York School for Performing Arts, after which he attended New York University. While still a student, he produced plays for the Children's Theatre at Circle in the Square in Greenwich Village. After a brief spell with the US Army, producing entertainment for the troops while stationed in New Jersey and Oklahoma, he went to Los Angeles, where at the age of 19 he became CBS Television's youngest producer.

Moving to ABC, he helped to develop the successful gangster series The Untouchables (1959), the hit animated series The Flintstones (1960) and the popular chase thriller The Fugitive (1963), starring David Janssen as a man seeking his wife's killer and the evidence to clear himself of the crime. He then formed a company called Talent Associates with fellow producer David Susskind in order to produce independently. The pair won two consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Dramatic Program, for The Ages of Man and Death of a Salesman. In 1965 the couple joined with Joseph E. Levine to produce a stage musical, Kelly, based on the exploits of Steve Brodie, who claimed in 1886 to have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge. Don Francks played the title role, with Wilfred Brambell as his father. After a tumultuous try-out in Philadelphia, during which leading lady Ella Logan was fired, the show earned a place in Broadway history by lasting one night.

Melnick's first film as a producer was Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, a revenge thriller so violent that it invoked the wrath of many critics, was banned in some areas, and caused Gordon M. Williams, author of the original book, to state, "I will never again sell one of my books to an American." Its commercial success prompted MGM to offer Melnick a job, and one of his first projects was That's Entertainment, a superbly edited (by Jack Haley Jr) compendium of musical numbers that received rave reviews, proved an enormous hit and spawned two sequels. Quickly rising to be MGM's head of worldwide production, Melnick gave the green light to such projects as the Neil Simon comedy The Sunshine Boys (1975), starring Walter Matthau and George Burns as two feuding ex-vaudevillians reunited for a television special, and Network (1976), a scathing satire by Paddy Chayefsky that proved eerily prophetic in its tale of a television station that will air anything to get large ratings.

Moving to Columbia, Melnick helped develop Alan Parker's unsparing depiction of life in a Turkish prison, Midnight Express (1978), the Oscar-winning divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), and the powerful tale of a nuclear disaster cover-up, The China Syndrome (1979). When Columbia's studio president David Begelman was fired after forging actor Cliff Robertson's name on a cheque, Melnick took over for nine months in 1978. He moved to 20th Century Fox after Columbia refused to finance his project, Bob Fosse's pretentious autobiographical musical, All That Jazz (1979).

The sci-fi tale Altered States (1980) was another failure for Melnick, with Chayefsky disowning his adaptation of his own novel (the screen credit has his given name, Sidney Aaron), but Making Love (1982), the story of a man who leaves his wife for another man, displayed his courage, though he had great difficulty casting it. "Everyone was absolutely terrified it would hurt their careers," he said. "We finally cast Harry Hamlin... and I had to spend a lot of time persuading him that it wouldn't damage his career any more than Jimmy Cagney playing a damaged murderer had damaged his... We were flying in the face of one of the last screen taboos."

Melnick's later films included the musical Footloose (1984), the action-packed Schwarzenegger vehicle Total Recall (1990) and two engaging comedies starring his friend Steve Martin, Roxanne (1987), fashioned by Martin from Cyrano de Bergerac, and L.A. Story ( 1991). Martin was one of a group of friends who gathered monthly to play poker – they included Johnny Carson, Chevy Chase, Carl Reiner and Neil Simon. Melnick's first wife, Linda Rodgers, was the daughter of composer Richard Rodgers; they had a son but divorced in 1971. Melnick later fathered a daughter.

Sherry Lansing, who was mentored by Melnick and later became head of production at Fox, said: "He was an extraordinary producer and an extraordinary executive. He was never afraid to take a risk." Stephen Spielberg said, "A lot of studio executives ride the fence between the creative element and the ... investor. Few have bent over as far in the direction of the film-maker as Dan Melnick."

Daniel Melnick, film producer and studio executive: born New York City 21 April 1932; married 1955 Linda Rodgers (marriage dissolved, one son); one daughter; died Los Angeles 13 October 2009.

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