John Calley: Film producer who made ‘Catch-22’ and successfully headed three major studios

Showing ambition and taking risks were part and parcel of John Calley's career in Hollywood. He was not the archetypal, tyrannical studio chief, instead preferring to nurture and guide writers and film-makers. During his early career as a producer, he steered the director Mike Nichols's 1970 film version of Catch-22, Joseph Heller's satirical, anti-war novel about a bombardier who tries to get himself diagnosed insane to avoid flying any more missions, only to be told that his logic in doing so makes him completely sane.

Calley faced many hurdles. The production demanded a Second World War US Army airfield, an air force of B-52 bombers and locations in Hollywood, Mexico and Rome. On top of all that, the black comedy M*A*S*H, which treads similar ground, was on course to reach cinema screens several months ahead of it.

A week into shooting, the producer, troubled himself by gout in his left foot, travelled to a Mexican airfield to discover Nichols suffering from a hernia, Alan Arkin – the reluctant bombardier – unable to focus on filming because his baby son was sick and the production designer Richard Sylbert flying back to California with infectious hepatitis. There were also other troubles, such as half a dozen extras being arrested for possessing marijuana.

The eight-month shoot was arduous, but Calley was always encouraging with Nichols and the screenwriter, Buck Henry, without interfering. "When – very rarely – he had a suggestion, it was usually a life-saver," Nichols said. Although Catch-22 was flawed and failed to receive the public and critical acclaim enjoyed by M*A*S*H, it has become a cult classic and exemplifies Calley's skill at giving others opportunities to realise their visions.

Calley was then able to capitalise on a changing environment in Hollywood, where a new generation of film-makers was coming up, and there was a growing realisation that there was a youth market eager for something fresh. Calley, who preferred sweaters and sportswear to the traditional executive's suit, saw the 1969 release of Easy Rider as a watershed. "After Easy Rider, everything was exploding everywhere," he said. "We were all young, it was our time and it was very exciting. The founders were no longer in charge. What had been this rigid, immobile structure had completely come apart and what was left was a lot of freedom."

In 1969, before the release of Catch-22, Calley joined Warner Brothers as executive vice-president in charge of production. He turned the studio into "the class act in town", according to one film writer, responsible for pictures such as Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971), Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), Dirty Harry (1971), The Exorcist (1973, winner of two Oscars) and Mel Brooks's comedy Blazing Saddles (1974). As president, then chairman (1975-80), he also oversaw successes such as All the President's Men (1976) and Superman (1978).

He later became president of the fading United Artists (1993-96) and had hits with Leaving Las Vegas (1995), the Bond film GoldenEye (1995) and The Birdcage (1996), directed by Nichols. Calley then took charge of Sony Pictures, where remained until 2003, and turned around the financially troubled studio with productions such as Jerry Maguire (1996), which established Cameron Crowe as an A-list director.

John Calley was born in 1930 in Jersey City, where his father sold cars. He followed army service by taking a job as a mail clerk at NBC in New York, then moved to an advertising firm. His break came with Film-ways, a prolific producer of sitcoms such as The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71) and The Addams Family (1964-66). He helped establish its film division, acting as associate producer on pictures such as the Oscar-nominated The Americanization of Emily (1964), and The Cincinatti Kid (1965, which starred Steve McQueen), before producing the Cold War thriller Ice Station Zebra (1968) and Catch-22.

But, after 11 years at Warner Brothers, Calley stunned many in Hollywood shortly after signing a new, seven-year contract by resigning, saying he was no longer enjoying himself. He returned in 1989 as executive producer of Shadow Makers (released as Fat Man and Little Boy in the US), Roland Joffé's account, written by him and Bruce Robinson, of the Manhattan Project.

Back in the business of making "intelligent" films, Calley produced Postcards from the Edge (1990), again directed by Nichols, based on Carrie Fisher's semi-autobiographical novel about a Hollywood star rebuilding her life after a drugs overdose; and Merchant Ivory's Oscar-nominated The Remains of the Day (1993), starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins.

Calley returned to the Hollywood studio system with United Artists, then Sony Pictures, before retiring at the age of 73. However, films were in his blood and he went on to produce Closer (2004, again directed by Nichols), The Da Vinci Code (2006), The Jane Austen Book Club (2007) and Angels & Demons (2009). "I've been lucky over my career to be able to transition back and forth between my two great passions – managing studios and producing movies," he said in 2003.

At the Oscars six years later he was presented with the Irving G Thalberg Memorial Award and described as "one of the most trusted and admired figures in Hollywood".

John Calley, film producer and studio executive: born Jersey City 8 July 1930; married 1972 Olga Schoberová (divorced 1992; one adopted daughter), 1995 Meg Tilly (divorced 2002); died Los Angeles 13 September 2011.

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