Ray Stark

Powerful Hollywood producer whose films included 'Funny Girl', which made a star of Barbra Streisand

Monday 19 January 2004 01:00 GMT

Ray Stark, producer, and literary and talent agent: born New York 3 October 1915; married 1939 Frances Brice (died 1992; one daughter, and one son deceased); died Los Angeles 17 January 2004.

Ray Stark was one of Hollywood's most successful independent producers, whose films included Funny Girl, which made a star of Barbra Streisand, plus The Way We Were, Night of the Iguana and 11 projects written by Neil Simon, most notably The Sunshine Boys and The Goodbye Girl.

Stark was also a powerful and influential deal-maker as both a literary and talent agent. Though he personally produced around 125 films, his most famous project was undoubtedly Funny Girl, a biography of the legendary comedienne Fanny Brice, who also happened to be Stark's mother-in-law. Having long dreamed of bringing Brice's story to the screen, he decided to first launch the project as a Broadway musical, and in the process gave Barbra Streisand the role which launched her as a major star.

The pair were to have a productive, if stormy, decade-long association, though Stark and his wife famously objected to her initial casting, Stark declaring, "She's terrible; look at that chin. She'll never play my mother-in-law." It took the combined persuasive powers of the composer Jule Styne, the producer David Merrick and the directors Jerome Robbins and Garson Kanin, to persuade the Starks to accept Streisand.

When, in 1999, Stark was given the David O. Selznick Lifetime Achievement Award by the Producers Guild of America, the guild's president called him "the stuff of legend".

Born in New York City in 1915 (although his year of birth has been debated) and educated at Rutgers and New York University Law School, he took various jobs, including that of a florist at Forest Lawn cemetery, before starting his show-business career as a publicity writer at Warner Bros. In the early Forties he managed to sell radio scripts to the series Red Ryder and shortly afterwards was literary agent for such writers as Ben Hecht, Raymond Chandler, J.P. Marquand and James Gould Cozzens. After serving in the Navy during the Second World War he joined the agency Famous, representing such stars as Marilyn Monroe, Richard Burton, John Wayne, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Kirk Douglas.

In 1957 he and the production executive Eliot Hyman formed Seven Arts Productions, and in 1960 Stark produced his first film, The World of Suzie Wong, based on the hit Broadway play. In 1966 he resigned from Seven Arts to concentrate on independent production, releasing a string of commercial hits through Columbia Pictures and becoming one of the industry's most powerful figures. He eventually formed Rastar Productions and Ray Stark Productions. Known for his ability to spot performers with star potential, he also drew on his earlier experience with writers to select works by proven authors.

He made a successful film, directed by John Huston, from Tennessee Williams' play The Night of the Iguana (1964) with Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner heading the cast, and produced 11 films by Neil Simon, including The Goodbye Girl (1977), which brought its star Richard Dreyfuss an Oscar; The Sunshine Boys (1975), with Walter Matthau and George Burns (who won an Oscar); California Suite (1978), for which Maggie Smith won an Oscar for playing an Oscar nominee; and Biloxi Blues (1988) starring Matthew Broderick.

Although considered the most successful Hollywood producer of the Seventies, Stark also gained a reputation for creating tension on his sets, in the belief that such an atmosphere promotes striking results. John Huston, who directed Night of the Iguana and three other films for Stark, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), Fat City (1972) and the musical Annie (1982), stated in his autobiography, "He makes a practice of starting rows among people working for him, believing that out of the fires of dissention flows molten excellence."

It took Stark several years to bring his most famous project, Funny Girl, to fruition. Fanny Brice, star of the Ziegfeld Follies, had been the mother of Stark's wife Frances. Stark initially wanted Judy Garland to star in a film version of Brice's life, but she declined. Three years later, with the project now a Broadway show, Mary Martin was considered for the lead, along with Carol Burnett and Shirley MacLaine. Anne Bancroft was finally selected for the role of Brice, and it was announced that the former pin-up movie star Betty Grable would be playing her mother. The Grable idea fell through, then Bancroft dropped out when her former lover Bob Merrill was selected to be the show's lyricist.

At this point Stark was persuaded to consider Streisand. "Barbra was an unknown when she was at first brought to my attention in I Can Get It For You Wholesale," he told The New York Times in 1967. "But once I had made up my mind, I never thought of anyone else in the part."

When Funny Girl opened on Broadway in March 1964, Streisand took 23 curtain calls, and Stark immediately determined that she would star in the film version. For her screen début in Funny Girl (1968), Streisand tied with Katharine Hepburn (in The Lion in Winter) for the year's Oscar.

Stark persuaded Streisand to sign a contract with him that committed her to do three more of his productions over 10 years, a deal she later regretted, calling herself an "indentured servant". Streisand's publicist reputedly pointed out to her that Stark had been partly responsible for her success, and that "if you got paid what you wanted to be paid, there wouldn't be any gold left in Fort Knox". Two of her subsequent films with Stark, The Owl and the Pussycat (1970) co-starring George Segal, and The Way We Were (1973) with Robert Redford, were big hits at the box-office, and only the third film, the Funny Girl sequel Funny Lady (1975) proved a disappointment.

Stark's other film productions included the hits The Electric Horseman (1979) with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) starring Kathleen Turner, and Steel Magnolias (1989) with Julia Roberts.

In 1970 Stark's son, Peter, aged 25, apparently jumped to his death from his 14th-floor apartment in Manhattan, and in 1977 Stark figured prominently in the scandal that erupted when a Columbia executive, David Begelmen, was found to have forged the actor Cliff Robertson's name on a cheque. Stark was a major stockholder in Columbia and had been a powerful mover in the hiring of Begelmen as head of production. After Begelmen's conviction for embezzlement, Stark campaigned vigorously for his reinstatement at Columbia. Stark also played a major role in unseating David Puttnam, the British producer, as head of Columbia in the late 1980s, objecting to Puttnam's vision of a less commercial approach to film-making.

Many of Stark's later film productions were not successful, but in 1993 he won an Emmy award for the television film Barbarians at the Gate, and he remained active until the end of the century, co-producing Random Hearts in 1999.

A noted philanthropist, Stark supported several educational institutions, was a collector of modern sculpture and paintings, and successfully bred champion racehorses. In 1980 he was given the most prestigious award bestowed by the Motion Picture Academy on producers, the Irving G. Thalberg Award.

Tom Vallance

Join our commenting forum

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


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in