Ivan Passer, a leading figure of the Czech new wave who directed films including “Cutter’s Way,” died Thursday of pulmonary complications in Reno, Nevada, an associate of the family confirmed. He was 86.
Passer was a close friend and collaborator of the late Czech filmmaker Milos Forman. Passer met Forman at a boarding school for delinquents or children who had lost their parents during the war (other students included Vaclav Havel and Jerzy Skolimowski). They reunited at film school in Prague, where he began collaborating on Forman’s films including “Loves of a Blonde” and “The Firemen’s Ball.” Passer’s first feature was the 1965 film “Intimate Lighting.”
Passer and Forman escaped Prague in 1969 as Russian tanks were advancing, when they pretended to be visiting Austria for the weekend. Though they lacked exit visas, a border guard who was a fan of Forman’s let them cross to safety, Passer told Variety in 2018.
After moving to the U.S., Passer began making films with some of the top actors of the era, including “Born to Win,” in which George Segal plays a heroin addict opposite Paula Prentiss and Karen Black; cop satire “Law & Disorder,” starring Carroll O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine; and crime comedy “Silver Bears” with Michael Caine and Cybill Shepherd.
It was a big switch from making banned films in Czechoslovakia to working for studios such as United Artists, but Passer told Film Comment, “Remember that I had lived under a Stalinist regime, so I knew how to deal with little Stalins in America.”
Perhaps his most well-known film was the 1981 “Cutter’s Way,” a noir drama starring John Heard as a wounded veteran and Jeff Bridges as his friend who helps him try to solve a murder.
He went on to direct an episode of “Faerie Tale Theatre” starring Mick Jagger; comedy “Creator” with Peter O’Toole and Mariel Hemingway and 1988’s “Haunted Summer,” a period piece with Laura Dern and Eric Stoltz as members of “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley’s entourage.
In the 1990s, he worked in television, winning Emmys and Golden Globes for the telefilm biopic “Stalin,” starring Robert Duvall, and directing TV movies “While Justice Sleeps,” “Kidnapped,” and “Fourth Story.” His later films include “The Wishing Tree,” starring Alfre Woodard, a TV adaptation of “Picnic” and Kazakh historical epic “Nomad: The Warrior,” co-directed with Sergei Bodruv.
He told Film Comment that part of the reason he didn’t work much in the later part of his life was that “I refuse to do violent films. I consider it dangerous. I have seen real violence during World War II.”
Passer later turned to teaching film at USC School of Cinema-Television.
He is survived by his wife, Anne, and a son.