Sheldon Gunsberg, a film exhibition and distribution executive for more than half a century, died Thursdayof a heart attack at his home in New York City. He was 78.

Gunsberg served as president of the Walter Reade Organization, one of the most important theater chains in New York, New Jersey and the metropolitan area, which included principal Manhattan theaters such as the Ziegfeld, Coronet and the Baronet.

He joined the company in 1954, becoming chief operating officer in 1971, and two years later succeeded Walter Reade Jr. as president following Reade’s death.

Gunsberg also headed Reade Organization’s Continental Distributing subsidiary, which distributed, and in some cases financed and produced, some of the premier foreign films of the post-World War II era. A sampling of the films included “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” “Billy Liar,” “Mon Uncle” and “The Organizer.”

Additionally, Continental co-produced and distributed “David and Lisa,” “Ulysses” and “A View From the Bridge.”

A native of Jersey City, Gunsberg served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II.

In 1948, Gunsberg joined Universal Pictures as a publicist for “Hamlet,” later directing advertising, publicity and promotion for all the J. Arthur Rank Prods. including “The Lavender Hill Mob,” “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” “The Promoter” and “A Passage to Pimlico.”

Gunsberg had been chairman of the Walter Reade Foundation and vice chairman of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, where he helped to create the Walter Reade Theater. He also held a position on the Board of Directors of Entertainment Internship and served with the National Executive Service Corps.

He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Lois, two daughters, and two grandchildren.

The funeral will be private.