Behlmer was among the most widely respected historians of Golden Age Hollywood, in part because of his insistence upon researching “primary source material” and not relying on faulty memories or exaggerated press accounts of the time.
“Memo From David O. Selznick,” which Behlmer edited from thousands of Selznick’s private letters, telegrams and memoranda, was a best seller in 1972. Behlmer first interviewed the “Gone With the Wind” producer for a 1963 article for “Films in Review,” one of dozens of magazine pieces he wrote over the decades.
Other books followed: “Hollywood’s Hollywood: The Movies About the Movies” (with co-author Tony Thomas, 1975), “Inside Warner Bros. 1935-1951” (1985), “Behind the Scenes: The Making Of…” (1989) and “Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck” (1993).
Behlmer’s first book, co-written with fellow film historians Tony Thomas and Clifford McCarty, was “The Films of Errol Flynn” in 1969. An admirer since boyhood of the actor, he later edited and annotated two screenplays for classic Flynn films, “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “The Sea Hawk,” as part of the University of Wisconsin Press’s series of published scripts.
His last books were also as editor: “W.S. Van Dyke’s Journal: White Shadows in the South Seas, 1927-28 and Other Van Dyke on Van Dyke” (1996), “Henry Hathaway: A Directors Guild Oral History” (with Polly Platt, 2001) and “Shoot the Rehearsal! Behind the Scenes With Assistant Director Reggie Callow” (2010).
His expertise extended to the MGM Tarzan movies, producer-director Merian C. Cooper and “King Kong,” and the music of Golden Age composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner and Miklos Rozsa. His DVD commentary tracks on such classics as “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Casablanca,” “12 O’Clock High,” “Objective: Burma!” and “How the West Was Won” were widely praised as definitive.
He also served as editor, music consultant and annotator for the Warner Bros. music set “50 Years of Film Music” in 1973, just one of many film-score albums and CDs for which he penned liner notes.
But essays and journalism were only part of Behlmer’s life. He enjoyed a lively and successful career in television and advertising throughout the 1950s and ’60s. He was stage manager, then staff director and producer, at Los Angeles’ KLAC-TV (now KCOP) from 1950 to 1956, working on such shows as “Liberace,” “Piano Playhouse,” “Mike Roy’s Kitchen,” “Hawthorne,” “Baxter Ward News” and “Cliffie Stone’s Hometown Jamboree.”
He was director on ABC’s “Ray Anthony Show,” featuring the big-band leader and his orchestra, during the 1956-57 season, and served as executive producer and director for KCOP from 1960 to 1963, overseeing various shows including his own “Movies’ Golden Age.”
Behlmer began producing and directing commercials for Grant Advertising from 1957 to 1960, which led to a two-decade career as a vice president at the Hollywood branch of the Chicago-based ad agency Leo Burnett Inc. from 1963 to 1984. He produced dozens of now-classic spots including the “No More Rice Krispies” opera spot for Kellogg’s (declared by Entertainment Weekly as among the top 10 commercials of all time) and others featuring the Pillsbury Doughboy, the lonely Maytag repairman, two spots featuring Buster Keaton, and others.
He was born Oct. 13, 1926, in San Francisco. He served for two years in the Naval Air Corps and, after World War II, was a theater arts major at Los Angeles City College and Pasadena Playhouse College. He later lectured weekly on film topics at California State University at Northridge and Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and guest lectured at USC, UCLA and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
He was a longtime member of the Directors Guild of America, a charter member of the American Film Institute and served on the board of directors of the Society for the Preservation of Film Music (now the Film Music Society).
He is survived by his wife Stacey, son Curt and daughter-in-law Anna. The family suggests memorial contributions to Guide Dogs for the Blind, P.O. Box 3950, San Rafael, CA 94912-3950, a charitable organization of which Behlmer was a longtime supporter.