Robert Halmi Sr: Prolific television producer who won more than 130 Emmy Awards

 

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The Independent Online

Robert Halmi Sr was one of the most prolific producers of all time who, together with his son Robert Halmi Jr, created more than 200 programmes and series for US and international broadcasters. His favoured genre was the television mini-series, often based on literature, including classics such as Call of the Wild (1993), 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1997) and Moby Dick (1998), which drew blockbuster audience ratings. His 1999 Peabody Award citation, in recognition of his contribution to film, described him as "perhaps the last of the great network television impresarios".

Halmi was born in Budapest in 1924. During the Second World War he joined the Hungarian partisans fighting the Nazi occupation. He was imprisoned in Poland and sentenced to death, only escaping execution with the liberation of the country by the Russians. Following the end of hostilities he was captured and again threatened with capital punishment, by his earlier saviours. This time the charge was of spying on the Russians on behalf of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to the CIA.

He graduated from Budapest University with a degree in economics in 1946 and worked with his father as a photographer. Five years later he left Hungary, arriving in America as a refugee with $5 and a Leica camera to his name. He soon found freelance work with Sports Illustrated and Life magazines and for the next decade specialised in documentary photography, making a move towards film in the early 1960s.

In 1979 he founded the film production company Robert Halmi Inc, with his son Robert. RHI Entertainment, as it subsequently became, was sold to Hallmark Cards in 1994. The pair bought back the company in 2006.

With big budgets and exotic locations, Halmi's productions were favourites with stars and cast members, as well as with audiences and critics. Reviewing the mini-series Gulliver's Travels (1996), directed by Charles Sturridge, a writer for Entertainment Weekly said, "Everything about this production is surprising, from its choice of Gulliver – Cheers' Ted Danson in an excellent wig – to its startling fidelity to Jonathan Swift's 1726 novel," adding that it was "...a big, gaudy, funny production that feels free to give full reign to Swift's blithe vulgarity." The programme won five Emmy awards, some of the 136 Emmys that his projects garnered during his lifetime.

Tin Man (2007), a new take on The Wizard of Oz , starring Richard Dreyfuss, Zoe Deschanel and Alan Cumming, was the highest-rated mini-series of the year and was nominated for nine Emmy awards. The series was shown in the UK on Channel 4 television last year.

His most acclaimed work was probably Lonesome Dove (1989), an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Larry McMurtry, starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. The six-hour mini-series, renowned for the panoramic beauty of its scenery and for its bold characterisations, was nominated for 18 Emmy Awards and won seven. The National Television Critics' Association named it the "Program of the Year". A reviewer for the New York Times suggested that Lonesome Dove had "...revitalised both the mini-series and Western genres, both of which had been considered dead for several years..."

In 1993 he had expressed concern about the takeover of the film business by what he called the "money people", describing himself as "somebody with pretty good taste who goes one step further". He emphasised: "With the creative process, everything has to be nurtured. I know on every project, every day, where it stands dollars-and-cents-wise, but I also know if someone has a cold."

Just after his 88th birthday, in 2012, he established a new production company based in New York, commenting at the time, "I became a producer so that I could follow my passion and create great programming that captivates and enchants audiences. This arrangement allows me the creative freedom to focus exclusively on what has inspired me from the beginning." He added enthusiastically, "I am thrilled to be able to continue to do what I have always loved the most."

His son, Robert Halmi Jr, is now the chairman of Great Point Media, based in London, which continues to produce thriller and sci-fi films for television, beyond the 200 television programmes which the pair have already created together.

Interviewed during the premiere of Neverland (2011), Halmi Sr was asked which of his productions was his favourite. "For me, the last one is the best, always," came his reply. At the time of his death he was working on Olympus, a 13-part mini-series for the Syfy Channel.

"He never switches off. He is on 24/7. I don't think he sleeps," said David Howe, president of the Syfy Channel. "He lives for reading books and figuring out what his next project is, and he's got the rights to books and comic books that I've never heard of. He really is a guru on some of this stuff, and he's very passionate about the genre."

MARCUS WILLIAMSON

Robert Halmi, television producer: born Budapest, 22 January 1924; married five times (two sons, one stepson, one stepdaughter); died New York 30 July 2014.

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