Gerald Mayer

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The Independent Online

Gerald Mayer, producer and director: born Montreal 5 June 1919; married 1953 Irene Briller (one son, two daughters); died Santa Monica, California 21 September 2001.

Although his position as a staff director at MGM may have had something to do with the fact that he was the nephew of the studio chief Louis B. Mayer, Gerald Mayer was an extremely competent director who made several satisfactory "B" films before finding a niche as one of the top producer-directors in television.

Born in Montreal, Canada, in 1919, he was the son of Jerry G. Mayer who, with his brother Louis, had been born in the town of Vilna in Russia and been brought to the United States as children by their parents, who scraped a living in the scrap metal business. Gerald would later talk proudly of the brothers' rise from poverty-stricken immigrants to become two of the most successful men in America – his father was studio manager at MGM, at the time the reigning studio in Hollywood, and uncle Louis was its powerful chief.

Gerald Mayer was educated at Stanford University, where he obtained a degree in journalism, then worked as a correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner. After serving in the US Navy during the Second World War, winning seven battle stars, he joined the production department of MGM in 1945, directing screen tests and shorts, notably one of the better films in the "Passing Parade" series, Mr Whitney Had a Notion (1949), in which Lloyd Bridges played Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin.

Mayer's handling of the subject earned him the chance to direct his first feature-length movie, a taut thriller, Dial 1119 (1950). Entitled The Violent Hour in the UK, it was a tense 74-minute tale of a young psychotic who holds a bunch of disparate people hostage in a bar. Mayer kept the pace and atmosphere tense and cast the film with a strong line-up of second-league but excellent performers. In the leading role of the killer, Mayer surprised audiences by casting Marshall Thompson, who had been typecast in clean-cut all-American roles, and the film also made effective use of newscasts on television (then a fresh plot device) to further the narrative.

Mayer followed this with other modestly budgeted but effective dramas, including an engrossing thriller, The Sellout (1951), in which Walter Pidgeon as a corruption-fighting editor headed another distinguished cast in a tale with several neat twists, and Bright Road (1953) starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte in a film notable at the time for featuring a mainly black cast in a film which did not feature race as an issue. While making Dial 1119, Mayer had brief romances with his leading ladies Virginia Field and Andrea King, but in 1953 he married Irene Briller, whom he met at a Hollywood party given by the lyricist Ira Gershwin.

In 1953 Mayer joined the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a producer and director of television drama, then moved back to the US where he both produced and directed The Millionaire (1955), an anthology series in which each week an eccentric millionaire would ask his personal secretary (Marvin Miller) to give an unsuspecting individual a million dollars to see how the new-found wealth would change the life of the recipient. The millionaire himself was never seen on camera, though the back of his head was occasionally glimpsed, but the "What would you do with a million dollars?" premiss made the show a hit for five years.

The Nurses (1962), later called The Doctors and the Nurses, was another series produced and directed by Mayer, who also directed numerous episodes of other shows including Gunsmoke, Mannix, Perry Mason, Lou Grant, Bonanza, The Fugitive, Mission Impossible and Quincy. Among his later shows was the popular Airwolf (1974), an action series featuring a high-tech helicopter.

Tom Vallance