Lifetime Achievement Award: William J. Creber

TIP SHEET
What: Ninth Annual Art Directors Guild Awards
When: Saturday, Feb. 12. — 6:30 reception; 7:30 dinner followed by awards presentation
Where: Beverly Hilton Hotel, International Ballroom
Wattage: Host Cheryl Hines and presenters Alan Alda, Danny Huston and Quentin Tarantino, among others

Production designer William J. Creber might be best known for his work on large-scale epics like “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Planet of the Apes” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” but this year’s Art Directors Guild lifetime achievement award recipient hopes he isn’t remembered solely for his commercial success.

For example, when Creber was asked to choose a film to screen at the guild’s film society a few years ago, he didn’t go with one of the three pics that scored him Oscar noms. Instead, he selected the more obscure 1968 costumer “Justine,” starring Anouk Aimee and Dirk Bogarde.

“It’s always fun to do period things,” says Creber of re-creating 1939 Alexandria, Egypt, for helmer George Cukor.

“But you don’t have to go back that far,” Creber adds, mentioning his work on the Steve Prefontaine biopic “Without Limits” (1998). “You do something in the ’60s or ’70s and it’s a period picture. Well, I was there.”

Creber came by his profession naturally. His father, Lewis, was a production designer at Fox in the ’30s and ’40s and William remembers being on sets from a young age.

Creber’s initial aim was to be an architect. But the Korean War cut his studies short and after four years in the Navy, Creber jumped at the chance to join Fox’s art department.

The studio system’s heyday afforded a young designer like Creber ample opportunity to learn. “It was more like a manufacturing plant,” he says. “It wasn’t spread out all over town (like now).”

He quickly rose in ranks from draftsman to assistant art director to art director. He also moved with ease between features and TV work like “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and “Lost in Space.” Creber insists that the same skills apply to both mediums, whether it’s raiding old “Cleopatra” sets for “The Poseidon Adventure” or revamping the von Trapps family villa for producer Irwin Allen’s “Time Tunnel” TV series.

This relationship with Allen would span two decades, culminating in the pair wreaking full-scale havoc on a 134-story building for “The Towering Inferno.”

Creber is quick to praise the directors he’s worked with over the years, whether it’s Cukor, Frank Tashlin or George Stevens. And “Poseidon” director Ronald Neame is quick to return the compliment.

Like other guild honorees Henry Bumstead and Ken Adam, Creber sees his career as far from over. Recent films include “Spy Hard” and “The Last Brickmaker in America” as well as a number of projects for the Walt Disney Co. One of those, constructing a $12 million New York back lot at the Mouse’s Florida theme park.

It allowed to Creber to indulge his first love, architecture. “I always wanted to build buildings,” he says with a laugh. “And I guess I eventually did.”

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