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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face
books
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' is based on historical events
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
filmSir Ian McKellen will play retired detective in new film
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
'Molecular Man +1+1+1' by Jonathan Borofsky at Yorkshire Sculpture park
tv
News
Glamour magazine hosts a yoga class with Yogalosophy author Mandy Ingber on June 10, 2013 in New York City.
newsFather Padraig O'Baoill said the exercise was 'unsavoury' in a weekly parish newsletter
Extras
indybest
News
people'She is unstoppable', says Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris show
Sport
Alexis Sanchez and apparently his barber Carlos Moles in Barcelona today
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sales Perfomance Manager. Marylebone, London

£45-£57k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

£45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

Marketing Manager

£36000 - £38000 per annum: Charter Selection: Charter Selection are working wi...

Accounts Assistant, Hammersmith

£25000 per annum: Charter Selection: Exciting sports company with a strong bra...

Day In a Page

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil