Robert Halmi Sr. – who has died at the age of 90 – would never tell you how he financed his larger-than-life TV projects. Coyly, he would reference international sales, even though others who dealt in the same arena insisted the numbers simply didn’t add up.
In a way, though, that was also part of Halmi’s charm. The consummate showman, the producer never wanted to be bothered with the business details, as if to say, in that thick Hungarian accent, “Hey, we’re doing a huge miniseries about the Bible! Why are you worrying about how I’m going to pay for it?”
For a time, Halmi cast an enormous shadow over the TV landscape. In the 1990s, he provided NBC with a stream of sweeping epics – “Gulliver’s Travels,” “The Odyssey,” “Merlin,” “Noah’s Ark” – that drew blockbuster ratings. He brought the “Gone With the Wind” sequel “Scarlett” to CBS, and scored then-record tune-in for cable’s USA network with an adaptation of “Moby Dick,” starring Patrick Stewart.
Marquee talent loved working with Halmi – in part because he treated them like stars, and in part because he allowed them to headline such lavish fantasies, shooting in exotic locales across the globe. He was an impresario, almost like getting to experience a touch of the early studio moguls, flitting off to Africa in his spare time.
Other producers, not surprisingly, were less charitable. Many resented the amount of primetime real estate and network budgets Halmi tied up, and some concocted elaborate theories regarding how he financed his projects. Halmi generally shrugged off such criticism, as if a guy who fought in the Hungarian Resistance against the Nazis couldn’t be bothered by Hollywood sniping.
In time, Halmi’s run of successes began to dry up, and the quality of his productions – from the dreadful “The Last Templar” to disaster epics to an update of “Pinocchio” – became increasingly poor.
Still, as recently as 2009, Halmi was able to orchestrate a multi-title deal with NBC/Syfy, in part because he was practically giving away the productions so that they would have distribution in the U.S.
Halmi’s people chafed at the time about a column that cited his company’s missteps, but even then, it was hard not to have a soft spot in one’s heart for him.
That’s because as TV seemed to be shrinking – or rather, fragmenting into a thousand tiny pictures – Robert Halmi Sr. was determined to keep things big. And in doing so, he didn’t just produce “Gulliver,” but appeared to relish every minute of that stretch when he looked like a giant among the Lilliputians.