Leo Jaffe, the onetime Columbia Pictures chieftain who not only turned his lot into an oasis for talented producers and directors but also helped set in motion the changes that would forever marry Wall Street and Hollywood, died Wednesday at his home in New York City. He was 88 and had been ill for some years.
A film executive who bridged the gap between the East Coast-directed studio system of Hollywood’s Golden Era and its evolution into the darling of the counterculture and speculators alike, Jaffe spent his entire half-century-long career at Columbia Pictures, beginning his career at the studio in 1930 and working his way up through the ranks to become chairman of the board in 1973. He stepped down in 1981 at the age of 72 and was named chairman emeritus for life.
“Leo Jaffe’s contribution to Columbia Pictures was extraordinary in both its impact and its duration,” said John Calley, prexy/chief operating officer of Sony Pictures Entertainment and, as such, Jaffe’s modern counterpart. “For 50 years, from the ‘Poverty Row’ days of Columbia as a struggling independent to the glory days of Columbia as a global leader in motion picture and television production, Leo Jaffe’s intelligence, insight, wisdom and what can only be called uncommon common sense were critical to the company’s success.”
During his eight-year tenure as chairman of Columbia Pictures, Jaffe was largely responsible for bringing to the studio a stable of talented directors and producers such as Ray Stark (“Funny Girl,” “The Way We Were”), Sam Spiegel (“On the Waterfront,” “Lawrence of Arabia”), Otto Preminger (“Porgy and Bess,” “Anatomy of a Murder”), Richard Brooks (“Lord Jim,” “In Cold Blood”), Stanley Kramer (“The Caine Mutiny,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”) and Steven Spielberg (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”).
As a vice president and corporate treasurer, Jaffe also had to rein in such expansive talent as David Lean and Spiegel, and he also had to deal with significant changes in the way films were financed and produced. Although he resigned from the chairman’s seat in 1981, he maintained a seat on the board of directors and provided much-needed clear thinking during the studio’s transition from a traditional Hollywood studio to the “entertainment product-generating” arm of a multinational, multifaceted corporate behemoth after the Coca-Cola Co. bought the studio for a then-record $700 million in 1982.
“Leo was responsible for my long association with Columbia Pictures,” remarked longtime friend Ray Stark, whose Rastar Prods. has produced a number of hits for the studio. “He very much wanted ‘Funny Girl’ for Columbia and took the gamble with Barbra Streisand despite concerns from his executives, who wanted an actress with a movie track record in the lead. He was a kind man and his own man: When he felt he was right, he held to it … and he was right very often.”
An industry legend, Jaffe was honored many times by numerous professional and civic groups and his own peers.
He was named National Assn. of Motion Picture Theater Owners (NATO) Man of the Year in 1968, Motion Picture Pioneer of the Year in 1972 and was awarded the prestigious Jean Hersholt Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in 1979.
Jaffe was born in New York City on April 23, 1909. While a business administration major at NYU, Jaffe took a summer job at Columbia Pictures. Impressed with his job performance, Columbia asked him to remain with the company as an auditor.
Jaffe finished his undergraduate degree at night and working at various jobs, began moving up in the company.
Jaffe became a VP in 1954 and five years later was upped to first veep-treasurer. In 1962, he was appointed executive VP and in 1967 became president of the studio. He was named chairman in 1973.
Jaffe is survived by his wife, Anita; three sons, Stanley, an independent producer and former president of Paramount Communications; Howard; and Ira, president of Viacom’s Famous Music, a music publishing company; daughters Marcia and Andrea, a film marketing consultant and former president of domestic marketing at Fox; stepdaughter Marilyn Hessel; and 11 grandchildren.
Services will be held 11 a.m. Fridayat Temple Emanu-El, 1 East 65th Street, New York City.
Family suggests donations in Jaffe’s name be sent to the Children’s Blood Foundation, the March of Dimes and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.