Art director Robert F. Boyle, who helped style Alfred Hitchcock’s suspenseful films like “North by Northwest,” died Sunday of natural causes in Los Angeles. He was 100.
Over five decades, Boyle worked on more than 80 films, including “In Cold Blood,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and “Private Benjamin.” Though he retired from film work in the 1990s, he continued to lecture at the American Film Institute until he was hospitalized last week.
For “North by Northwest,” Boyle re-created Mt. Rushmore on a set and advised on location selection for the iconic cropduster scene with Cary Grant. He started to collaborate with Hitchcock in 1942’s “Saboteur,” and also worked on “Marnie” and “Shadow of a Doubt.”
On “The Birds,” he drew inspiration from Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream,” bringing Disney in to create matte scenes and creating all of the town fire scenes using special effects.
Boyle said Hitchcock even introduced him to the woman he’d later marry, scribe Bess Taffel.
Born in Los Angeles, Boyle graduated from USC’s architecture school. He began his career in 1933 at Paramount as a draftsman in the art department and moved up the ranks to assistant art director before jumping to U. Boyle took a break during WWII, serving in the Army Signal Corps in Europe before returning to Hollywood.
Tom Walsh, prexy of the Art Directors Guild, said Boyle, who grew up during the Depression, found few jobs in architecture and gravitated toward showbiz where he found more glamorous and consistent employment with “pretend architecture.” The field was more interesting to him than real architecture, Walsh said, because their work mixed contemporary design with period.
“He was a master storyteller through visuals,” Walsh said, explaining that Boyle often spoke at guild programs giving insight into what the field was like in the early years of cinema. “His career spanned a huge arc of cinematic history. His recall was laser-like.”
Boyle earned four Academy Award noms for “North by Northwest,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Gaily, Gaily” and “The Shootist.” The Acad bestowed an honorary award for his contributions to the industry in 2008. After clips unspooled at the Oscarcast, Boyle came on stage and just said, “I have had the good fortune to be a part of this, and I thank you all for being there for me.”
In 1997, the Art Directors Guild also honored Boyle with its lifetime achievement award.
John Muto, who interviewed Boyle for the ADG’s screening series, said “You could see how much he enjoyed his work, he was one of those Greatest Generation guys.” Boyle, a studio man for most of his life, switched to a small indie for “Winter Kills” in 1979, Muto said. “He completely switched and flew all over the country to make it work.”
“He was one of our master designers,” Walsh said. “In many ways he was a living treasure.”
In a 2008 interview with Variety, Boyle said: “I’m all for construction, because we’re dealing with the magic of movies. And I always feel that if you build it, you build it for the dream rather than the actuality. We make up our own truth.”
Among his other film credits were “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” the original “Cape Fear” and his last credited American feature, 1989’s “Troop Beverly Hills.” (He worked on a pic for Greek auteur Theo Angelopoulos in 1991.)
The subject of Daniel Raim’s Oscar-nominated docu short, “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose,” Boyle served as a member of the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for nine years and was a two-term president of the ADG.
He taught at the American Film Conservatory to the end of his life. Former AFI head Jean Firstenberg said, “He gravitated to the giants because he was a giant.”
His wife, Bess, died in 1991. Survivors include two daughters and three grandchildren.