John Calley was proof that there really can be second acts in show business — and enviable ones at that.

The studio exec and producer, whose wildly diverse and successful career spanned 50 years, top positions at three majors and dozens of influential films and box office hits, died Tuesday in Los Angeles after a long illness. He was 81.

Calley was known as a cerebral, erudite executive who eschewed the usual suit and tie for sweaters and sportswear and was well loved for supporting filmmakers by trusting their vision. His management style and taste in movies yielded an array of commercial and critical successes, from “Catch-22” and “All the President’s Men” to “The Exorcist” and “The Da Vinci Code.”

Calley had most recently been chairman and CEO at Sony Pictures Entertainment, which he joined in 1996 after turning around MGM/United Artists in the 1990s and spearheading production at Warner Bros. in the 1970s.

“John was the greatest studio executive who ever lived,” Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal, to whom Calley was a close friend and mentor, told Variety. “Everybody who got the chance to work with him learned everything that there is to know about being a movie executive.”

As Sony topper, he partnered with Pascal to deliver a new generation of hits, using his instincts and business acumen to pull off pricey projects like “Men in Black,” “Charlie’s Angels” and “Spider-Man.”

Early years

Born in 1930 in Jersey City, N.J., the Columbia grad cut his teeth as a programming exec at NBC before joining Filmways in 1960, when he began producing such movies as “The Americanization of Emily” and “Catch-22” with Martin Ransohoff. But he made his biggest mark during a long and fruitful run heading production at Warner Bros., where he made a conscious decision to avoid imposing his will on filmmakers the way earlier studio bosses had. Filmmakers loved and trusted him as a result, and over the years he developed close relationships with the likes of Mike Nichols, Stanley Kubrick and Clint Eastwood; he bought Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and encouraged him to make “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” a complete change of pace.

“As a studio head he was unfailingly supportive and didn’t try to do the filmmaker’s job,” said Nichols, director of Calley-produced films “Catch-22,” “Postcards From the Edge” and “Closer.” “When he believed in someone, he trusted and supported him — and when very rarely he had a suggestion, it was usually a lifesaver. In fact, that’s what he was: a lifesaver.”

Feeling burned out, Calley dropped out of Hollywood in 1980 and mostly stayed away for a dozen years. During that time he lived in Connecticut, pursuing his other interests in cars and books while doing some consulting for Warners and producing two movies, including 1993’s “The Remains of the Day,” which earned Calley his sole Oscar nomination.

Back to Hollywood

In August 1993, then-Variety editor Peter Bart published an open letter to Frank Mancuso, who was tasked at the time with replenishing the revived MGM/United Artists with management talent. Bart advised Mancuso that the hitmaking regimes of the past all had “very small staffs and uniquely un-bureaucratic operating styles,” specifically referencing “Warners under Ted Ashley and John Calley, circa 1969-1977. They had a staff consisting of four or five truly disorganized guys, but they jammed out ‘Deliverance,’ ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘Klute,’ to cite just a few.”

Bart soon took a call from Michael Ovitz, a chief architect of MGM/United Artists’ financial rescue, asking where Calley could be reached. Weeks later, Mancuso asked Calley to restart the defunct UA as part of his overall strategy to rebirth MGM/UA — and despite his long absence, Calley took the job.

Starting from scratch, Calley generated the most successful Bond franchise film at the time, “GoldenEye,” with a new Bond, Pierce Brosnan. He picked up the low-budget “Leaving Las Vegas,” which won an Oscar for its star Nicolas Cage.

Though Mancuso would become partial owner of the studio and his position was secure, Calley decided to move to the troubled Sony Pictures Entertainment, which had been steadily unraveling. In late 1996, when his predecessor Alan Levine was fired, Calley signed a five-year contract with Sony to serve as prexy and COO to oversee both the Columbia and TriStar divisions.

Calley engineered a B.O. turnaround at Sony and became chairman and chief executive of Sony Pictures in 1998. He stepped down in 2003 and produced films including “Closer,” “The Da Vinci Code” and its sequel, “Angels and Demons.”

Thalberg kudo

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences honored Calley with its Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 2009, calling him “one of the most trusted and admired figures in Hollywood.” He was one of four honorees at AMPAS’ first Governors Awards that November, though he was too ill to accept in person.

“I visited him in the hospital in recent times, surrounded by doctors, but nothing had changed,” Howard Stringer told Variety on Tuesday. “He never felt sorry for himself. He had a parade of medical problems that doctors tried to tend to, but he soldiered on. When you got to see him, he would start telling nostalgic stories again.”

His personal fortitude served him well in his years as a studio exec. In an interview last year, Calley explained that the key to greenlighting big studio movies is to understand the process and its terrors.

“It’s a guy lying in a bed in a rented apartment in Century City at 4 in the morning in a fetal position trying to decide whether or not to say yes to a $175 million budget for ‘Spider-Man,'” he said in a companion interview for “You Must Remember This,” a docu about Warner Bros. “It comes down to one guy who has to use his gut.”

Calley is survived by a daughter, Sabrina, and stepchildren Emily Zinnemann, David Zinnemann and Will Firth, from his marriage to Meg Tilly. A memorial will be held at Sony Pictures Studios with further details to be announced.

(Andrew Stewart, Richard Natale and Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.)