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Walter Mirisch Looks Back on His First Producing Credit

Producer Walter Mirisch is on a first- and second-name basis with Oscar, having a Thalberg, a Hersholt and a best picture statue for producing “In the Heat of the Night.” His career also includes cinematic highwater marks such as “Some Like It Hot” and “West Side Story.” But it all started on Hollywood’s so-called Poverty Row at Monogram Pictures where a 25-year-old Mirisch was high on “Cocaine,” a crime yarn by Cornell Woolrich, which in 1947 was turned into “The Fall Guy,” Mirisch’s first producing credit.

Cornell Woolrich is best-known today as the legendary writer behind classics like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and Francois Truffaut’s “The Bride Wore Black.” Did you get to know him?
My second picture was also based upon a Woolrich story: “I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes.” But he was very private and I only spoke to him through his agents.

“The Fall Guy” is based upon his story “Cocaine,” which sounds quite provocative for the title of a 1947 Hollywood film. Was it?
I saw it as a way for Hollywood films to begin to talk about drugs, but unfortunately the Production Code Administration got involved and they completely obliterated what we were trying to do. By the time they were finished, I think we used aspirin.

Your brother Harold was a buyer for RKO theaters and you were a Harvard Business School graduate. When did you first decide to try your hand at the movie business?
I think when I was 5 or 6 years old and I first saw movies and I thought, “It must be fun to do that!” Eventually I found my way to the Harvard Business School. I thought it would help and it did.

Even though you were making low-budget crime thrillers, it sounds like you already had aspirations to do more.
I was in my 20s and I was eager and excited to finally make my first movie. The idea that I could show everybody that I knew how to do the job as well as anybody rather consumed me. I started as assistant to the general manager who soon became president, which was a great break for both of us. So I learned how every position was done. It was great training at Monogram because I could study every aspect of filmmaking.

Did you enjoy the social aspects of Hollywood in those golden days?
(Laughs) I got married quickly and soon after that I became a father. And besides, I was making pictures like “Bomba the Jungle Boy.” I really wasn’t making very much money, so we weren’t going out to the Mocambo every night!

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