Ingo Preminger

Producer of 'M*A*S*H'
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The Independent Online

Ingo Preminger, producer and agent: born Czernowitz, Austro-Hungarian Empire 25 February 1911; married 1936 Kate Musil (one son, two daughters); died Pacific Palisades, California 7 June 2006.

During his old age, Ingo Preminger could look back with pride at helping to restore the blighted careers of two gifted blacklisted screenwriters, as well as producing M*A*S*H, one of the most successful and innovative films of the 1970s.

The younger brother of the actor-director-producer Otto Preminger, Ingo was born in the city of Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi in Ukraine), and was raised in Austria, where he studied Law at the University of Vienna. As a Jew he found his legal career blighted by the rise of Nazism, and, soon after Hitler invaded Austria in 1938, escaped across the border to Czechoslovakia with his wife and daughter. With the help of his brother Otto, they eventually reached the United States.

After running a paint-supply business in New York City for nine years, Ingo Preminger took his family (which now included a son and another daughter) to California, where he worked at the Los Angeles office of the talent agent Nat Goldstone. A year later, he set up an agency of his own, handling, for the most part, people in the film industry. One of his clients was Leon Uris, author of the book Exodus. Another client was Dalton Trumbo, one of the banned "Unfriendly 10". The prolific Trumbo had spent nine years writing scripts under such pseudonyms as Robert Rich, Les Crutchfield and Sally Stubblefield. When Ingo's brother Otto filmed Exodus (1960), Trumbo was hired to write the screenplay under his own name, thus breaking the blacklist.

Throughout the witch-hunt era, Ingo Preminger had also represented Ring Lardner Jnr, another "Unfriendly 10" screenwriter. In the late 1960s, a publisher sent Lardner the galley proofs of a comic novel, asking him to write a blurb for the book-jacket. The novel concerned a mobile army surgical hospital unit attending the wounded a few miles from the fighting during the Korean War. Written by Richard Hooker, a pseudonym for a surgeon who had served in just such a field hospital, it had obvious parallels with the Vietnam War, then at its height.

After writing his blurb, Lardner began to wonder whether the novel had film possibilities, and sent the galleys to Preminger, asking him to handle a movie deal. So impressed with the property was Preminger that he also decided to produce any film version. Eventually, he sold the screen rights to 20th Century-Fox. This was particularly satisfying as Lardner had been summarily sacked by the studio 21 years earlier, after refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The MASH screenplay had been turned down by more than a dozen directors before Preminger began campaigning for the little-known Robert Altman, who had only directed three obscure feature films. One of them, Countdown (1968), which concerned the fears and fortunes of a group of American astronauts and their women, was the kind of virtuoso ensemble piece that the virtually plotless MASH had to be, and Lardner and the studio were won over.

Robert Duvall (who had impressed with his performance in Countdown) was cast as the priggish Major Frank Burns, with Elliott Gould as Trapper John and Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye Pierce. Lardner's clever, irreverent script for MASH (which later became M*A*S*H, thanks to the studio's asterisk-happy publicity department) won him an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. M*A*S*H was nominated for four other Oscars, including Best Picture. Gould and Sutherland, who both became stars because of their work in the film, had tried during production to have Altman removed, but Preminger's faith in his choice of director never wavered.

His producing career would have boasted a typical Hollywood Happy Ending had it concluded with M*A*S*H, but his film based on Helen MacInnes's spy novel The Salzburg Connection (1972) received such critical comments as " irritating", "gimmicky" and "a beautiful setting for a very confusing yarn".

Also unsuccessful but raffishly touching was his last film, The Great Smokey Roadblock (1976), in which Henry Fonda was superb as an ageing, mortally ill truck driver fleeing his creditors and the police across the border. Robert Englund (eight years before becoming the maniacal Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street) scored as a young hitchhiker, as did Susan Sarandon as a prostitute. Variety praised the film's "human warmth without bathos ".

By the late 1970s its producer had retired from the movie business.

Dick Vosburgh