David Picker, who headed United Artists, Paramount and Columbia’s motion picture divisions and was known for forging relationships with groundbreaking filmmakers and material, died Saturday in New York. He was 87 and had been suffering from colon cancer.
MGM tweeted, “We are saddened to hear that a member of the United Artists family has passed away. David Picker was a true visionary who brought iconic films to theaters such as the James Bond franchise.”
Picker brought the James Bond novels and the Beatles to United Artists; helped launch Steve Martin’s movie career and oversaw boundary-pushing movies like “Last Tango in Paris” and “Midnight Cowboy.”
Among the Hollywood figures who started out working for Picker as an assistant were Jeffrey Katzenberg, Bonnie Arnold, Tom Rothman and Jonathan Demme. His 2013, “Musts, Maybes and Nevers,” was a candid look at both his hits and flops, and he was honored with the PGA’s Charles Fitzsimmons Award in 2008.
Sony chairman Rothman said, “David was the classiest man in our business. A true gentleman and a great film champion. Like many others, I owe the start of my career to him, and all of us at Columbia Pictures, benefit to this day from his accomplishments. Rest In Peace, old friend.”
He grew up in the movie business with a father who booked theaters for Loews after his grandfather sold a small chain he owned to the company. After graduating Dartmouth and serving in the U.S. Army, Picker started working at United Artists, where his uncle Arnold Picker was a partner.
Picker was quickly promoted to head of production, where he made a crucial deal that continues to pay off for the company: he acquired the rights to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, though he initially told the James Bond producers to “keep trying” when they sent over Sean Connery’s screentest for “Dr. No.”
When he tried to persuade super-agent Lew Wasserman to sell him the rights to Ian Fleming’s novels for Alfred Hitchcock to direct, Picker said Wasserman’s reply was “It’s a great idea, kid, but Fleming just won’t sell.” But a few months later, as Picker told it in his memoir, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman came to New York and asked the executives, “We own the rights to James Bond. Are you interested?” They were.
Picker was also instrumental in getting the Beatles into the film business, recommending that UA make “A Hard Day’s Night.” UA also released “Help!” and “The Yellow Submarine.”
Picker also oversaw “Tom Jones” for the studio, which led to a best picture Oscar. After the studio experienced several flops and management changes, Picker was promoted to president and COO at 38 years old. Among the films made during his tenure as president were “Midnight Cowboy,” which won the best picture Oscar despite being rated X, Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris,” Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” “Women in Love,” for which Glenda Jackson won the best actress Oscar, as well as several of Woody Allen’s early films including “Bananas” and “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask.”
At the time his memoir was released, he told Deadline he would be known for his quote, “If I had turned down every picture I greenlit, and greenlit every picture I turned down, I’d have the same number of hits and flops.”
After working briefly as an independent producer on films including “Lenny,” Picker was named head of production at Paramount, working for Barry Diller. Picker oversaw best picture winner “Ordinary People” and “Saturday Night Fever” and greenlit “Grease,” later accusing Paramount CEO Michael Eisner for taking all the credit for Paramount’s hits of the era.
Moving into independent production, he launched Steve Martin’s film career with “The Jerk,” “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” and “The Man With Two Brains.”
He later served as president of Hallmark Entertainment Productions Worldwide, for which he oversaw Emmy winners “The Temptations” and “P.T. Barnum.”
He is survived by his wife, Sandra, his sister Jean Picker Firstenberg, former president and CEO of the American Film Institute, and two daughters.