Walter Mirisch : and then I did find the right role for him because he’s just marvelous in it

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Also present were Coburn’s son and daughter, James Jr. and Lisa, and Lynda Erkiletian, exec director of the James and Paula Coburn Foundation. Mirisch’s son and frequent collaborator Andrew Mirisch also attended.

Onstage, KCET head of development Mary Mazur introduced Mr. Mirisch. “I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to present this award to Walter tonight. My first job in television was at NBC, and one of my first executive assignments was as the program executive on a series of TV Movies called DESPERADO, which were produced by Walter and his son Drew.” There were five DESPERADO movies, the original written by Elmore Leonard.

WALTER MIRISCH: Somehow or other, receiving awards never gets old. This is a wonderful evening. It gives me a great opportunity to see one of my really treasured memories, THE MAGNIFICENT 7, which is really a milestone film in my career and in my life. And I am deeply moved, honored and proud to receive this most distinguished award here this evening. I am particularly proud to remember that it comes from KCET, whose studio was my home for ten years in the very beginning of my career, and where all the films of my earlier career were made. (Note: the original home of KCET was Monogram Studios.) I’m also proud that a sponsor of this event is the James and Paula Coburn Foundation, because Jim was a friend of mine.

I was crazy about him. We first met when he was in a segment of a television show I was making, that starred Joel McCrea, WICHITA TOWN. He was in the pilot episode, which was called THE NIGHT THE COWBOYS ROARED. Jimmy was just great in it, and I remembered him, and as my career progressed, and as his did, I kept looking for opportunities to find a role. It didn’t happen until THE MAGNIFICENT 7 came along, and then I did find the right role for him, and I think you’ll agree when you see the picture, because he’s just marvelous in it. Later on we continued to work together, and then Jim appeared in THE GREAT ESCAPE, also a signal film in my curriculum. And then finally, the last one he did for me was MIDWAY, in 1975. I’m also proud to be a part of this continuing saga of KCET’s contribution to our community. I’ve enjoyed it all my life, and I continue to. So here we go, and if you ask me some questions, I’ll try to answer them, Pete, and I hope they won’t be too embarrassing.

DEADLINE: HOLLYWOOD writer Pete Hammond then took the stage, with a recommendation that we all read Walter Mirisch’s autobiography, I THOUGHT WE WERE MAKING MOVIES, NOT HISTORY.

PETE HAMMOND: Look at the cover: all of those Oscars, and the Thalberg Award, and the Golden Globe. This is one helluvah career that you’ve had. I’m curious how MAGNIFICENT 7 came about, because there was this Japanese film, SEVEN SAMURAI.

WALTER MIRISCH: Kurosawa, the great Japanese director, made THE SEVEN SAMURAI. I saw it and thought it was wonderful. It starred the great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, who I had the privilege of working with; he appeared in my film MIDWAY many years later. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s the story of Japanese soldiers of fortune, in the medieval period of Japan. And I kept thinking about whether it could be translated into an American picture, when a friend of mine who was associated with Yul Brynner called me up. He said, you’d asked me about the rights to SEVEN SAMURI. It’s funny, Yul Brynner brought the same question up to me, because he also had Japanese connections. We both thought that perhaps he could intervene with Toho, the Japanese company that had produced it. I had just succeeded in attracting to our company John Sturges. I was a great fan of John’s movies, and I called him up and said, John, I think I’ve got the first movie for us to make. I want you to come over, and I want to run THE SEVEN SAMURAI with you. The two of us sat alone in a projection room and watched it, and had the best time ever, talking while the movie was running, and translating all of the sequences of Mr. Kurasawa’s movie into the western motif. So in the projection room we made a western of THE SEVEN SAMAURI. Then we hit on a marvelous writer, Walter Newman, who did the basic script of THE MAGNIFICENT 7.

PETE HAMMOND: I notice Walter Newman is not listed on the posters on the lobby. Was he a blacklisted writer at that time?

WALTER MIRISCH: No, he was not a blacklisted writer. Don’t let that get around. However, Walter was very stubborn. While we were shooting the picture, we needed some work done while we were down in Mexico. I asked Walter to come down, and for one reason or another, he couldn’t come. I think the Writer’s Guild then had an arbitration, and decided the writer we had brought down had made a significant contribution, and should receive some kind of a shared credit. Walter resented that; he was angry at his Guild, not at John or I, and he said that if they didn’t give him sole credit, he didn’t want anything. It was

a very serious career mistake that Walter, who was a wonderful writer, made. And it was Bill Roberts who did the work down in Mexico, and helped us field the suggestions that came from our always cooperative cast, all of whom wanted to enlarge their roles. That’s how that came about.

PETE HAMMOND: Actually I think James Coburn was one member of the cast who liked not having many lines in the film. Does he have eleven lines?
WALTER MIRISCH: I never counted them. However, he plays this laconic character. I shall never forget, one day Walter Newman came in to my office and said, I’ve got to ask you about something that I’ve been noodling with, and can’t make up my mind. If two men faced one another, and one man had a gun and the other had a knife, and they both fired at the same time, which would arrive first? I said, no question about it, the bullet would. He said, I was thinking about having the knife-thrower do it. I said that’s a great idea; and that’s how that got into the movie. It was showmanship, and Jim was the perfect one to execute it.

PETE HAMMOND: Talk about the rest of the cast, because Steve McQueen was starring in a television series, WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE, at the time.

WALTER MIRISCH: The casting of THE MAGNIFICENT 7 was kind of a fun exercise for John Sturges and myself. Because we had these wonderful roles to fill. And I’d try and get all of my favorite actors in, and John would try and get his. That’s how Jim Coburn got in, because I had been looking for a really good Jim Coburn role since WICHITA TOWN. John Sturges had made a movie for MGM with Frank Sinatra called NEVER SO FEW. And he kept telling me he had this kid in it, and the kid is marvelous, and we’ve got to find a part for the kid. And the kid, of course, was Steve McQueen.

PETE HAMMOND: Charles Bronson?

WALTER MIRISCH: Charlie Bronson I had known for a long time, and the O’Reilley part just cried out for Bronson. I think the most exciting piece of casting comes with the story. A couple of years ago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York honored me. At the event they asked Eli Wallach to come and speak about me. I hadn’t seen Eli a lot in recent years; he always lived in New York, and we didn’t run across one another too often. Eli got up and said, I think I owe my whole career to Walter Mirisch. Well, I perked up. I didn’t know why he felt that way, but I was interested, as I hope you all are. And Eli said, before I met Walter Mirisch, I was just another Jewish actor in New York. After I met him, I became a Mexican bandit for life!

PETE HAMMOND: It was Sturges’ idea?

WALTER MIRISCH: It was John’s idea. And it was brilliant. I said, are you crazy? He said no, no, think, and we looked at some film, and then I met him, and it came together. John and I had a wonderful relationship. As a matter of fact I am indebted to him for the title of my book. He had called me once, while I was writing it. He was retired by then. He loved boats, and he was down in Mexico someplace, on his boat. He called me and said, Walter, I’ve been asked to do an article about THE GREAT ESCAPE. And I don’t really remember some things that I wanted to write about. And I was wondering if you still have a copy of the script? I said John; I can’t believe you don’t have a copy of the script: this is one of the best movies of your whole life. He said, what are you talking about? I thought we were just making movies, not history. So that resonated with me, and I used that as the title.

PETE HAMMOND: You really didn’t think you were making history when you were making all these movies?

WALTER MIRISCH: No – I was trying to make a living.

PETE HAMMOND: They say music is the soundtrack of your life; your movies are the soundtrack of my life, from SOME LIKE IT HOT to WEST SIDE STORY. WEST SIDE STORY and THE APARTMENT were back to back Best Picture winners. Billy Wilder, you did nine films with him.

WALTER MIRISCH: Actually he worked for nobody else during the period of seventeen years when we were together. However, the important thing in my career was not just making those movies with Billy Wilder; what was more important was having a thousand lunches with him. He was the most interesting, stimulating, brilliant man.

ARHIVE 2014.

PROC. BY MOVIES

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