Benign power broker & producer Stark dies

Dealmaker brought Streisand to H'wood

Ray Stark, for decades one of Hollywood’s most important producers and power brokers, died Saturday of heart failure. He was 88.

He died in his sleep at his home in Holmby Hills, said longtime friend Warren Cowan. His health had been failing since he suffered a stroke several years ago.

Stark brought the works of Neil Simon to the screen and introduced film auds to the young Barbra Streisand. He was involved in some 125 films as a producer, many of them major hits, and his films grossed more than $1 billion at Columbia alone.

His influence as a Hollywood power broker went far beyond that of a typical producer. He was dubbed “the electric rabbit” for his energy and persistence, and insiders knew him as the industry’s ultimate persuader. “He could seduce a statue,” recalled his longtime friend Robert Evans.

He was a consummate dealmaker known for his eye for talent and good writing. “The biggest actors in the world wanted Ray to read a script before they’d do it,” Evans said. “He could cut as tough a deal as anyone in the business, but you couldn’t dislike him. And that’s why everyone would work with him.”

Stark developed his eye during his years as a literary and talent agent in the 1940s and ’50s, when his clients included J.P. Marquand, Ben Hecht, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Kirk Douglas and Richard Burton.

At Colpix, his backstage machinations helped bring the troubled studio back from the brink, helped David Begelman get hired as head of production — and helped get Begelman reinstated after his check-forging improprieties came to light.

“He was a power broker, but he used his power benignly,” longtime friend and former superagent Sue Mengers said. “He always helped his friends.”

Avoided limelight

The secretive Stark avoided the limelight and few details are known about his early life.

He was working for Warner Bros.’ publicity department in 1939 when he married Frances, the daughter of the legendary vaudevillian Fanny Brice. After serving in the Navy in WWII, he became a literary agent with the famed Charles Feldman, handling top scribes. Then, in the early ’50s, he joined Famous Artists as a talent agent and guided the careers of Monroe, Douglas, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Ronald Reagan.

In 1957, he and Elliot Hyman formed Seven Arts, which dealt mainly with television, purchasing the rights to stage and literary properties. There, Stark produced his first film, “The World of Suzie Wong.” The company was later absorbed by Warner Bros.

Through his wife, Stark had the rights to the life of his mother-in-law, which became the Broadway musical “Funny Girl,” the show that launched Streisand’s acting career. In 1967, he departed WB/Seven Arts to be an independent producer and produced the film version at Col. He stuck with Streisand for the film version; it proved a major hit and earned Streisand an Oscar.

Stark also produced a score of Neil Simon projects — both originals and adaptations of such stage successes as “Biloxi Blues” and “Lost in Yonkers.”

Stark’s Rastar Prods. was sold to Columbia in 1980. He continued as an independent producer. Later in the decade, he played a key role in ousting Col chief David Puttnam.

Community linchpins

From the ’60s into the ’80s, Ray and Fran Stark were also the town’s ultimate hosts. Their lavish dinner parties were an essential part of the Hollywood social scene.

They were also important art collectors, and their home boasted a sculpture garden with works by major artists. LACMA will receive most of their collection.

The sales of Seven Arts and Rastar had helped Stark become one of the richest men in Hollywood, and he became a major philanthropist. In 1979, he funded USC’s Peter Stark Motion Picture Producing Program, the first graduate-level program in producing. It was named after his son, who had committed suicide in 1970 at the age of 24. He made another donation to USC in 1984.

In 1980, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences bestowed the Irving Thalberg Award on Stark.

Wife Fran died in 1992. He is survived by daughter Wendy Stark Morrisey, onetime Los Angeles editor for Vanity Fair, and a granddaughter.

Services will be private. Donations may be made to the Peter Stark Producing Program at the USC School of Cinema-Television.

(Richard Natale and wire services contributed to this report.)