Mort Abrahams: Film producer best known for his work on 'Planet of the Apes'

Friday 21 August 2009 00:00

A durable Hollywood figure, the producer Mort Abrahams possessed both an instinct for mainstream success in film and television and a penchant for bringing stage plays to a wider audience. He is assured of a toehold in popular culture, through having helped to the original Planet of the Apes (1968) reach the screen.

He was the son of a stockbroker, his entrée into the entertainment industry an accidental one. The Bank of America had put money into several, largely unsuccessful films, and he was commissioned to find out if any could be sold to TV. As he later admitted, he had no idea if they could, but found himself fascinated by the nascent medium. He began by producing an early sci-fi series, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (1950-55), then Tales of Tomorrow (1951-53), on which the writers included the Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling. Serling would also work on the script of Planet of the Apes; despite contrary claims, Abrahams would maintain that Serling was responsible for the film's plotline, and the final twist involving the Statue of Liberty.

As producer of the live anthology series General Electric Theater (1954-55), Abrahams' first work was an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's The Man Who Liked Dickens, directed by Nicholas Ray a year before Rebel Without a Cause. His second, I'm a Fool, paired that film's stars, James Dean and Natalie Wood; Dean also appeared in the very next segment, alongside the series' unlikely host, Ronald Reagan. Abrahams remembered Dean as often late for rehearsals, but "the stories about him being troublesome as an actor are arrant nonsense. If I had to make a list of my five most temperamental actors, Jimmy would definitely NOT be on it."

For NBC, he produced the similar Producers' Showcase (1956-57). Having seen the acting couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne's play The Great Sebastians, he persuaded them to do a television adaptation, and selected as director Franklin J. Schaffner, who would later undertake Planet of the Apes. After an episode of the road saga Route 66 (1962), Abrahams was among a turnover of producers on the second series of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1965-66). He attributed its success to Robert Vaughn and David McCallum: "They never fussed or fumed over unworthy matters, and they were always where they should be with their scripts."

During U.N.C.L.E., Abrahams re-encountered Arthur P. Jacobs, who had been in charge of publicity for General Electric Theater. The forceful Jacobs was in the process of turning producer, and invited Abrahams to join his company Apjac, formed in 1964. As Jacobs' right-hand man, Abrahams gave practicality to Jacobs' wild ideas and concentrated on script and production matters while his partner blazed ahead with stars and publicity.

Abrahams maintained that Apes was "turned down by every studio in town at least twice". After test footage was made in 1966, with Edward G. Robinson as chief ape Dr Zaius, 20th Century Fox eventually agreed, once Jacobs had consented to making Doctor Dolittle (1967).

However, the latter was not an easy shoot. Sir Ranulph Fiennes objected to filming in Castle Combe, and planted bombs on locations where filming would take place. And as John Gregory Dunne's book The Studio (1968) recounts, when Jacobs sighed "You think you got problems? Try apes and animals," Abrahams interjected, "and Rex Harrison."

Despite extensive merchandising, Doctor Dolittle failed at the box office – it had cost three times as much as the far more successful Apes. Abrahams had considered casting John Wayne as the astronaut hero of the latter, ultimately deciding he was too much identified with Westerns. He felt Charlton Heston's self-invented "God damn you all to hell", as opposed to the script's "My God" might result in the film being classified as unsuitable for children, but was overruled.

With the experienced Paul Dehn, Abrahams co-wrote and co-produced the first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1969); although it was "essentially my idea", he was dissatisfied with the result. After the unsuccessful musical Goodbye Mr Chips (1969), and acting as sole producer on The Chairman (1969), Abrahams left Apjac. Returning to adapted plays, he oversaw Pinter's The Homecoming (1973) and Osborne's Luther (1973) as well as The Man in the Glass Booth (1975), now as overlooked as its author, the actor Robert Shaw.

Separate Tables (1983), co-produced by HBO and HTV, with John Schlesinger directing Julie Christie and Alan Bates in Terence Rattigan's play, received some fine reviews. Abrahams' last production was Seven Hours to Judgement (1988).

He shared his recollections in Brian Pendreigh's book, The Legend of the Planet of the Apes (2001) which asserted that "although his title was associate producer, he hired writers and actors and in today's parlance he would simply have shared the producer credit with Jacobs, who might even have been labelled executive producer."

His marriage to his college sweetheart Dorothy endured, and she survives him, along with their daughter.

Gavin Gaughan

Mort Abrahams, film and television producer and writer: born New York City 26 March 1916; married (one son deceased, one daughter); died Sherman Oaks, California 28 May 2009.

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