Thomas M. Pryor, the editor of Daily Variety for 30 years, died Monday of heart failure at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys. He was 88.
With Pryor’s passing, showbiz has lost one of its last links to the early days of both the motion picture industry and trade journalism.
He was hired by Variety publisher Syd Silverman in 1959 as Daily editor, a post he held until his retirement in 1989. Silverman told Daily Variety that it was Pryor’s “independence — and all that that entails” which best described Pryor’s reign at the paper.
During his tenure, Pryor ran the paper with a firm hand, a vigorous editorial approach and considerable flair.
“We talked a lot about policy, but when it came to stories, Tom was the man in charge. He knew the biz and he could make decisions,” Silverman said.
Pryor was on a first-name basis with luminaries as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and George S. Kaufman. His experience in showbiz spanned so many decades that he’d often astonish rookie Variety reporters with his first-hand accounts of key figures and events.
Once in a dispute with editors over “Show Boat,” Pryor casually mentioned that he was at the 1927 Broadway opening of the musical. And another time when an editor was researching Charlie Chaplin, it came out that Pryor had had dinner with the comic the night before he was forced to leave the country.
Pryor unflinchingly maintained his integrity with public relations people, studio tycoons and readers. He was also resolute in honoring the divide between the editorial and advertising sides of a paper that has always gained its principal revenues from the same companies it daily analyzes and whose product it often criticizes.
“He had many friends and he kept them, but at the same time, nothing stood in the way of his own journalistic integrity — and his friends respected that quality,” producer Sam Goldwyn Jr. told Daily Variety on Tuesday.
“My father (Samuel Goldwyn) loved Tom as a confidant and friend. Though they had many fights, the friendship remained until the end of my father’s life,” he added.
Pryor began his journalism career in the mid-1920s when he joined the New York Times as a copyboy. In 1931, he joined the motion picture department, where he served as a reporter, editor and film critic. In 1951, Pryor and his family moved to Los Angeles when he became the N.Y. Times’ Hollywood bureau chief and correspondent.
A pugnacious Irishman with the proverbial soft heart — physically and in personality, he reminded more than one colleague of James Cagney — Pryor was a pro’s pro who was highly regarded for his news judgment and his ability to play tough but fair in a highly competitive town.
Thomas Matthew Pryor was born in Manhattan. Musically precocious, he was playing violin by age 10, and within two years could be heard on radio station WHN. The noted radio impresario Major Bowes heard Pryor and booked him to play solo at Broadway’s Capitol Theater.
Pryor moved briefly from the violin to the boxing ring as a Golden Gloves fighter before being hired at 14 as a part-time copy boy with the New York Times. Within a year, he was writing fillers for the paper, receiving $7 a column.
After joining the Times full-time, he served as an obit writer and general assignment reporter before becoming assistant to Bosley Crowther, the paper’s famed film critic. In addition to his reporting duties, Pryor became one of the Times’ backup critics during Crowther’s long reign, and served as president of the New York Film Critics Circle.
Pryor shifted to the Hollywood beat during the height of the blacklist era, when the film studios were also grappling with competition from television and the threat of runaway production.
He is survived by two sons, Peter Pryor, executive news editor of the Hollywood Reporter, and Thomas Pryor, a film editor; a daughter, Virginia; eight grandchildren; and two sisters.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Encino.
Rosary will be held Friday evening at J.T. Oswald Mortuary in Canoga Park. For information call (818) 342-3107.
Family suggests donations in his name be made to the Motion Picture & Television Fund.
(Todd McCarthy and Elizabeth Guider contributed to this report.)