Howard Zieff, who helmed the features “Private Benjamin” and “Unfaithfully Yours,” died Sunday in Los Angeles of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 81.
Known for his keen sense of comic timing and eye for detail, Zieff was considered one of the most influential people in the advertising business, known as advertising’s king of comedy and the “Fellini of television commercials” before switching to a successful comedy feature directing career in Hollywood.
“He never lost his sense of humor,” said his wife, literary agent Ronda Gomez-Quinones, who said he had been affected by Parkinson’s disease for more than nine years.
Zieff lived a real-life “Mad Men” existence as a star of the New York advertising world of the 1960s, starting as a still photographer on advertising campaigns for clients including Volkswagen and the “You Don’t Have to be Jewish” series for Levy’s bread.
He then moved into directing commercials, where he directed Alka Seltzer’s “Mama Mia Spicy Meatball” spot, one of the best-remembered TV commercials of all time.
Among the other memorable campaigns he directed were the Benson & Hedges cigarette commercials and several clever spots for Volkswagen, such as “Funeral.” Time magazine called him “The master of the mini ha-ha.”
After several offers to direct features, he accepted MGM’s offer to make his film debut with the 1973 comedy caper “Slither,” starring James Caan, Sally Kellerman and Peter Boyle.
Zieff relocated back to Hollywood, and followed with comedies including “Hearts of the West” with Jeff Bridges and Andy Griffith; “House Calls” starring Glenda Jackson, Art Carney and Walter Matthau and “The Main Event” with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal.
Zieff then directed Warners 1980 hit “Private Benjamin,” for which Goldie Hawn and Eileen Brennan were Oscar-nommed.
He went on to direct “Unfaithfully Yours,” with Dudley Moore as a famous symphony conductor and “The Dream Team,” starring Michael Keaton, Christopher Lloyd, Peter Boyle and Stephen Furst as four mental patients on the loose.
His last feature credits were “My Girl,” with Macaulay Culkin, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Dan Akroyd and sequel “My Girl 2” in 1994, after which he retired.
In addition to numerous Clio awards, Zieff was awarded advertising’s Lucie Award for Achievement in Advertising in 2007.
He is survived by his wife and a sister.
Donations may be made to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, TreePeople or the First Tee golf foundation.