David Swift

Monday 07 January 2002 01:00

David Swift, film producer and director: born Minneapolis 1919; married (two daughters); died Santa Monica, California 31 December 2001.

David Swift wrote and directed the two films that made Hayley Mills a teenage star, Pollyanna (1960) and The Parent Trap (1961). Mills, who won a special juvenile Oscar for her work in Pollyanna, described the productions as the two most successful of her career. She said of Swift, "It was extremely fortunate for me that he was in charge of those two films." They were made for the Disney organisation, for which Swift had once worked as an animator in his early days in Hollywood.

A prolific writer, he scripted most of his films, which also included the sprightly musical How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and two comedies starring Jack Lemmon, Under the Yum Yum Tree and Good Neighbour Sam. He also wrote, produced and directed for television, and in the Fifties he created a hit comedy series, Mr Peeper.

Swift's father owned a company that made sausage skins in Minneapolis, where he was born in 1919. He grew up with a passion for drawing, and, after the family lost all its money in the Depression, he stowed away on freight trains to reach California with the goal of working for Walt Disney. While attending art school and going to night school to learn how to type, he worked at several jobs, including ushering at a cinema.

His determination paid off when he was hired at the Disney studio as an office boy, working his way up to become an assistant animator to the celebrated Ward Kimball in 1938. He worked under Kimball on such classics as Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo, and by 1942 had been promoted to full animator. The Second World War then intervened, and he served as an Air Force pilot, lying bombing missions over Germany.

When he returned to Los Angeles, it was to write comedy scripts for radio shows, providing material for the medium's top stars, including Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante and Red Skelton. He could combine both quantity and quality and was in demand as a dramatist for such early television anthologies as Hallmark Hall of Fame, Philco Television Playhouse, Playhouse 90 and Studio One.

It was after seeing the actor Wally Cox in a drama on Philco Television Playhouse that Swift and producer Fred Coe conceived Mr Peepers in 1952 especially for the bespectacled star, who played a shy, mild-mannered science teacher whose efforts to do the right thing always backfired. Broadcast live from New York and originally scheduled for an eight-week summer run, the show was a surprise hit and was rushed back into production to return in the winter. When Peepers and his girlfriend, an unassuming nurse (Patricia Benoit) who seemed just right for him, were married at the end of the 1953-54 season, it attracted the sort of viewing and media excitement that greeted Rhoda's wedding or JR's shooting many years later.

Swift created another series, Jamie (1953), in which the child actor Brandon DeWilde played an unloved orphan who finds a kindred spirit in his grandfather (Ernest Truex). Though a popular show, it was suddenly cancelled when the network and sponsor argued over business matters.

He both wrote and directed episodes of such series as Wagon Train and Rifleman, and directed an intriguing episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents entitled Murder Me Twice (1958) before returning to the Disney studio in 1960 when offered the chance to be both writer and director of his first feature film, Pollyanna. The result was one of the finest of family films, a beautifully cast classic which was moving without being mawkish. The critic Arthur Knight wrote in the Saturday Review, "Pollyanna has the feeling for Americana, the nostalgic glow of a simpler, gentler way of life", and Time magazine called it "the best live-action movie Disney has ever made".

It reunited Swift with Kimball, who provided a train and the town's fire-fighting equipment from his own private toy-train museum. "This was truly an ensemble film," said Swift. "Everyone in the cast and crew had a marvellous time and whenever we meet we remember it lovingly." The film was a personal triumph for the young Hayley Mills as the optimistic heroine whose positive attitude transforms a town's inhabitants.

She had been noticed by Disney when he screened her British movie Tiger Bay in order to assess the suitability of John Mills for his film Swiss Family Robinson. When Disney saw how the 14-year-old was performing in Pollyanna he signed her to a contract and he asked Swift to write and direct her next film, The Parent Trap (1961), based on a German novel, Das doppelte Lottchen by Erich Kästner. A comedy in which a pair of twins, each of whom has been brought up by one of their divorced parents, meet by accident at summer camp and decide to change places, it had an amusing premiss, another acclaimed performance by its star (this time playing two parts) and, despite being overlong, was a huge box-office hit. (Pollyanna, though a better film, did less well at the box office, and Disney blamed the title: "Girls and women went to it, but men tended to stay away because it sounded sweet and sticky.")

Talking of Swift to The Los Angeles Times last week, Mills said, "He was a very big influence in my life . . . David was always relaxed and patient and gentle and sweet."

Leaving Disney, Swift wrote and directed The Interns (1962), a popular hospital drama starring Cliff Robertson, Love is a Ball (1963), a Riviera-set comedy with Glenn Ford and Hope Lange (sweethearts at the time), and two comedies starring Jack Lemmon, Under the Yum Yum Tree (1963) and Good Neighbour Sam (1964). The latter was an adept screwball comedy that brought Swift some of his finest notices.

His keen comic touch was also evident in his transcription of the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage musical How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967). Wisely retaining both Robert Morse, to recreate his Tony-winning leading performance as the ingenuous-looking go-getter, and Rudy Vallee as the vague company chief, Swift achieved just the right balance of reality and caricature, smoothly incorporating most (unfortunately not all) of Frank Loesser's delectable songs. Besides adapting, producing and directing the piece, Swift also played a small role in the film as a lift attendant.

He continued to be prolific on television, creating other series including Grindl (1963), starring Imogene Coca as a casual worker sent each week to do a different job, Camp Runamuck (1965), set in a boys' summer camp, and Arnie (1970), in which Herschel Bernardi played a labourer who has to deal with drastic changes in his social status when he is suddenly made an executive. None of these shows was as popular as Mr Peepers had been, but Swift was in demand as a director of such series as Eight is Enough, Barney Miller and The Love Boat.

In 1977 he worked for Disney again when he and Rosemary Anne Sissons scripted Candleshoe (from Michael Innes's 1953 novel Christmas at Candleshoe), made in England with Jodie Foster as an American tomboy who poses as the heiress to an English estate. Directed by Norman Tokar, it was an entertaining tale which also featured David Niven as a butler who is a master of disguise.

His last directing assignment was in 1997, but his family said he never stopped writing, and in 1998 he wrote a remake of The Parent Trap, which starred Lindsay Lohan as the twins. Swift's wife of 44 years, Micheline, said,

He was so enriched from his experience at Disney that he wanted to do more. He was a go-getter. He always said, "One can do wonders with a pen."

In July last year Swift was in London to record commentary tracks with Hayley Mills for the forthcoming DVD versions of both Pollyanna and The Parent Trap.

Tom Vallance

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments