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Walter Mirisch, producer of Some Like It Hot, has died aged 101.

He was born in New York in 1921. His father, Max, was a tailor born in Krakow, and his mother was the daughter of Polish and Hungarian immigrants. After leaving high school, Walter spent the summer working as an usher at New Jersey’s State Theatre, one of a chain owned by Spyros Skouras, the future president of Twentieth Century-Fox.

A heart murmur kept Walter from joining the Navy, but he was determined to serve his country in World War II, and moved to Burbank, California to work at a bomber-plane plant, writing technical articles and sharing his knowledge with other military manufacturers. In 1942, he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a year later, he graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Business Administration.

After the war ended, Walter moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in motion pictures. He produced a low-budget film noir, Fall Guy (1947), at Monogram Pictures, one of Hollywood’s ‘Poverty Row’ studios. By 1950, he was heading production at Monogram’s successor, Allied Artists, overseeing Flat Top (1952), an Oscar-nominated war film; the CinemaScope Western, Wichita (1955); and the sci-fi classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956.)

Walter worked with director Billy Wilder for the first time on Love in the Afternoon (1957), a romantic comedy starring Gary Cooper, Audrey Hepburn, and Maurice Chevalier. He then formed The Mirisch Company with his older half-brother Harold, who had begun his career as an office boy at Warner Brothers in 1924; and younger brother Marvin, who had joined them both at Monogram in 1953.

The Mirisch Brothers’ first production was another Western, Fort Massacre (1958.) On April 25th that year, Walter visited Marilyn Monroe and her husband, playwright Arthur Miller, at their apartment on East 57th Street, Manhattan, with his brothers and Billy Wilder, to discuss Monroe’s upcoming role as singer Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot. They would meet again at a press party in the Beverly Hills Hotel on July 8th.

Marilyn signs a contract with Harold Mirisch at her home in Manhattan

“Billy Wilder told us that he was interested in doing a film about an all-girl orchestra, the premise of which had been utilised many years before in a German film, Fanfaren der Liebe,” Walter wrote in his autobiography. “It became a real test for the attorneys to find the then-owners of the film and to acquire the right to remake it. In his screenplay, Billy used little material from the original film, except the idea of two men who disguise them- selves as women so they can get jobs in an all-girl band. Nearly everything else was original. Billy wanted to work on the script with I. A. L. Diamond, with whom he had worked for the first time on Love in the Afternoon, so we made a deal for Iz to collaborate with Billy on what was later titled Some Like It Hot.”

While Billy Wilder was credited as the film’s producer, Walter saw his function as creating the space to allow directors to focus solely on crafting the films they wanted to make. This meant taking hands-on control of everything off-set, which as the Los Angeles Times reported, entailed dealing with a “miasma of agents, properties, screen rights, salaries, star temperaments, contract negotiations, lawsuits, legal clearances, logistics, billings, budgets, ballyhoo, release dates and release cities.”

Marilyn and Tony Curtis with the Mirisch Brothers – Marvin, Walter and Harold – at the Beverly Hills Hotel

Although the female lead was initially considered for Mitzi Gaynor, Walter believed that Wilder had written the part with Marilyn Monroe in mind (having previously worked with her on The Seven Year Itch.) “The difficulties of working with Marilyn Monroe have been told and retold,” Walter admitted. “Certainly this was a troubled period in her life.” Marilyn became pregnant during the shoot, although she would miscarry shortly after filming wrapped in November. Walter also stated that she frequently asked for permission to return to New York at weekends to visit her psychiatrist, Dr. Marianne Kris. While it is unclear if these concessions were granted, Marilyn was certainly “quite dependent” on her doctors, as Walter observed.

“The weekends sometimes became protracted, and we had to keep adjusting our schedules to work around her absences,” he wrote. “Billy showed remarkable patience through it all, and I don’t think he ever compromised. He didn’t try to work around her dialogue readings, but he just stuck with her until she finally got it right. Paula Strasberg, Lee’s wife, was her drama coach, and Marilyn insisted on having Paula on the set with her while she was working. After each reading she would look over at Paula and await her approval. Billy showed the most incredible tolerance of this process. Jack [Lemmon] and Tony [Curtis] told me that the multiple takes were driving them around the bend.”

Marilyn and Billy Wilder

“Finally the film was finished, and like all of Billy’s films, which are shot with a minimum amount of coverage, you see the first cut shortly after the production is finished,” Walter recalled. “We weren’t disappointed. We knew we had something really wonderful. At one point, Billy wanted to call the film Not Tonight, Josephine, but eventually he decided upon Some Like It Hot. That title had been used on a 1939 Bob Hope picture, and we had to get permission to use it from Universal, which now owned the rights. We rather sweated out the process of getting it cleared and getting the right to use it.”

“For some reason, the picture opened rather slowly in March 1959,” he added. “It even got some poor reviews! The notice in the Los Angeles Times was headed ‘SOME LIKE IT HOT Not So.’ Others were absolutely glowing, and the picture soon caught on and was hugely successful. It was the first giant hit for The Mirisch Company, and it helped propel us into the next group of our pictures on an entirely different level.”

After the premiere, Wilder spoke frankly to the New York Herald Tribune’s Joe Hyams on the difficulties of working with Monroe. While certainly not without provocation, Wilder’s bitter remarks were genuinely shocking. “After the article appeared, he called me one day and said, ‘You have to come over here,’” Walter wrote. “I walked to his office, and he showed me a telegram he’d just received from Arthur Miller, who had read the interview […] and was outraged at Billy’s insensitivity to Marilyn and his lack of appreciation of her great contribution to his picture. Billy replied to Miller’s wire with an appropriately witty communication. Miller replied to that, and it became a marvellous exchange of correspondence …”

Marilyn with Arthur Miller and Paula Strasberg

Some Like It Hot was distributed through United Artists, an independent company founded in 1919 by filmmaker D.W. Griffith and actors Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. It had become a public company in 1957, and would distribute many more Mirisch-produced films in years to come. “Some Like It Hot became a milestone picture, not only in the history of The Mirisch Company but also in the history of United Artists,” Walter wrote. “It was budgeted at a little over $2 million dollars and eventually cost more than $3 million. However, when we looked at the film, we were immensely enthused and genuinely felt that this was a truly wonderful comedy. I don’t know that I would have believed then that it would stand the test of a half century and make motion picture history, but I sure thought it was good.”

“If one wanted to make Some Like It Hot today, I don’t think it could be done any better,” he reflected. “Neither the style, nor the casting, nor the writing or direction could be improved upon. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and surprisingly won only one, for costume design.” 

Walter on the set with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon

The Mirisch Company entered television in 1959 with Wichita Town, a Western series starring Joel McCrea, which ran for a single season. Then in 1961, Walter produced a pilot episode at NBC for a Some Like It Hot spin-off show, written by Herb Baker. The film’s two male leads reprised their roles in the opening scene, where they are still being chased by gangsters.

‘You know,’ Curtis tells Lemmon, ‘There’s only one way for us to get those guys off our backs.’ After Lemmon replies, ‘What’s that?’, the camera cuts to a hospital ward, with Vic Damone and Dick Patterson removing bandages to reveal their new faces. “Jack and Tony were very generous to do that first scene for us,” Walter commented. “The Marilyn Monroe role was played by Tina Louise. It was funny, but this pilot failed to make the airwaves.”

Billy Wilder’s next film, The Apartment (1960), was another Mirisch production, winning five Academy Awards. He would make six more films with Walter: One, Two, Three (1961); Irma La Douce (1963); Kiss Me, Stupid (1964); The Fortune Cookie (1966); The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970); and Avanti! (1972.) “Once out of the gate, the Mirisches give you full rein, and never use the whip,” Wilder told the Los Angeles Times in 1967. “When you win a race, they let you wear the wreath. And if you break your leg, they don’t shoot you — they let you do it yourself.”

Following their biggest hit yet with The Magnificent Seven (1960) – a classic Western which was followed by three sequels and a long-running TV spin-off – West Side Story, the highest grossing film of 1961, won ten Academy Awards. Although less lucrative, The Children’s Hour was another notable film, daringly taking on homosexual themes.

After producing two films with Elvis Presley in 1962 (Follow That Dream and Kid Galahad), and a well-received adaptation of the hit Broadway drama, Two for the Seesaw, the company launched two major films in 1963. The Great Escape is considered one of the best war films ever made; while The Pink Panther made a global superstar of Peter Sellers. The Mirisch brothers produced two more Pink Panther movies, plus an animated TV series that ran for decades.

Walter with his wife, Patricia Kahan

Walter collected his first Academy Award for Best Picture after producing In the Heat of the Night (1967), a tense drama in which a homicide detective (Sidney Poitier) is teamed with a racist local sheriff (Rod Steiger) to solve the murder of a businessman in a small Southern town. “It was very difficult to get that made smack in the centre of the civil rights revolution,” Walter recalled. Out of concern for Poitier’s safety as a black man, the production was moved from segregated Mississippi to Illinois.

“Before we made the picture, I was told by financiers, ‘You will start riots in the South with this picture,’” Walter told the Los Angeles Times. “I said if it doesn’t play in the South, it doesn’t play in the South. What it has to say is so very important that the picture has to be seen.” Poitier would reprise his role in two more movies, while director Norman Jewison worked with Walter again on a stylish heist movie, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and the period musical, Fiddler on the Roof (1971.)

Walter’s creative focus made him a favourite with younger directors, while his brothers were more business-minded. However, he would clash with Hollywood veteran John Huston on the set of Sinful Davey (1969), first vetoing his casting daughter Anjelica as the female lead, and then implementing major cuts before its release. The film was a box-office flop, with Huston claiming it had been “spoiled beyond recognition.” On the other hand, Walter was firmly supportive of Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (1970) despite its commercial failure, and it remains a critical favourite.

Harold Mirisch died in 1968, and Walter and Marvin left United Artists behind to produce films for Universal Studios, including Mr. Majestyk (1974), Battle of Midway (1976), Same Time, Next Year (1978), and Romantic Comedy (1983.) In 1976, Walter received the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes. He was a three-term president at the Producers Guild of America, and served four terms heading the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, winning the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1978, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1983.

By the 1980s, the brothers were working mostly in television. Marvin Mirisch died in 2002, and Walter’s wife Patricia passed away in 2005, after 57 years of marriage. He was belatedly credited as executive producer of The Magnificent Seven in 2016, and for The Pink Panther in 2022. “They call the producer the man with the dream,” he once said. “But a producer must be idealist, pragmatist, diplomat and disciplinarian. He must be both artist and businessman, but above all he must be a showman.” In 1990, crime novelist Elmore Leonard dedicated his scathing Hollywood satire, Get Shorty, to Walter, “one of the good guys.”

Leonard would also provide a foreword for Walter’s memoir, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History, published in 2008. “Walter is a straight shooter with an easy sense of humour,” Leonard wrote. “Walter’s cool. He remains in place because he knows what he’s always known: you begin with a good story.” A second foreword was written by Sidney Poitier, who praised Walter as a “courageous seeker of truth, especially in troubling times … The Mirisch brothers, Walter, Harold, and Marvin have enriched the lives of countless numbers of our fellow human beings the world over, and they have certainly made one hell of a difference in this life of mine.”

Walter Mirisch died of natural causes on February 21st, 2023, and is survived by his three children: Lawrence Mirisch, who runs the Mirisch Agency for technical professionals; daughter Anne Sonnenberg; and Andrew Mirisch, a television producer. “He achieved so much in life and in the industry,” filmmaker Steven Spielberg reflected. “If you live to be 101 and produced The Apartment, I’d say it’s been a good run.”