James M. Roberts, executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for 18 years ending in 1989, died March 28 in Rancho Bernardo, Calif., of emphysema. He was 87.
The Toronto native was hired as the Academy’s controller in 1954. He had expected to remain concerned primarily with the org’s finances, but after exec director Margaret Herrick retired in 1971 and her successor suffered a stroke that same year, Roberts was upped to the top staff position.
Roberts won the respect of the governors of the Academy and of its staff, which more than tripled during his long tenure. He oversaw the move of the Acad’s HQ from a small Melrose Avenue building to its current Beverly Hills site. The late stages of his term saw the conversion of the former Beverly Hills “Waterworks” building into the home of the Academy’s Herrick Library.
Current Academy exec director Bruce Davis described Roberts as “a man with such a light touch on the reins that many people didn’t notice how much directing was going on, or how deft it was. He was an enormous asset to the organization, and — not incidentally — a gentleman in the highest sense of the word.”
Roberts is survived by a daughter and granddaughter.