Prolific Director Richard Fleischer, 89

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 27, 2006

Richard Fleischer, 89, who made a handful of excellent films, dozens more across many genres and was once called "the most prolific and least identifiable director in America," died March 25 at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif. He had a respiratory infection.

Mr. Fleischer was the son of Max Fleischer, once a rival to Walt Disney in early movie animation through comedy shorts featuring cartoon flapper Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor.

Richard Fleischer initially made movies of distinct, if understated, tension that were sometimes likened to Hitchcock done on the cheap. "The Narrow Margin" (1952), a witness-protection caper set on a cross-country train, is considered his early classic.

RKO studio officials had denied Mr. Fleischer money to build a train interior that could be mounted on a platform and rocked to give the effect of train motion. To compensate, Mr. Fleischer used a hand-held camera that jostled enough to convey a moving train.

"I made sure to hang something in every scene," he once said. "A coat or a jacket. Sleeper curtains. We put little wires on them and moved them back and forth so in the background you had the feeling that the train might be moving. We got away with it."

Once an aspiring psychiatrist, Mr. Fleischer was drawn to tales of the criminal class. They often had a masochistic streak, including "Violent Saturday" (1955), a bank-robbery tale with a memorable death-by-pitchfork scene, and "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" (1955), about the murder of architect Stanford White and his love affair with model Evelyn Nesbit.

Mr. Fleischer also directed "Compulsion" (1959), with Orson Welles as a Clarence Darrow-like lawyer in a replay of the Leopold-Loeb murder case, and "10 Rillington Place" (1971), with Richard Attenborough as the necrophiliac English landlord John Reginald Christie.

He also extracted an unnerving performance from Tony Curtis as convicted rapist and serial killer Albert DeSalvo in the documentary-style "The Boston Strangler" (1968).

Mr. Fleischer once said he received a hand-embossed leather wallet from DeSalvo. "It was a difficult thank you letter to write," he said. "I keep the wallet in my office, and I doubt I'll ever use it."

There was also "See No Evil" (1971), with Mia Farrow as a blind woman fleeing a psychopath; "The New Centurions" (1972), based on Joseph Wambaugh's police novel and starring George C. Scott; and the science fiction thriller "Soylent Green" (1973), which has proved an enduring favorite for its closing line: "Soylent Green is people!"

Despite an exhaustive output -- he made more than 45 films -- Mr. Fleischer was hard to classify. He had no signature style, and he crossed many genres. He helmed the expensive musical flop "Doctor Dolittle" (1967) with Rex Harrison and then tackled Charles Bronson's odd farm-labor revenge drama "Mr. Majestyk" (1974).

Film historian David Thomson noted Mr. Fleischer's reputation as "the most prolific and least identifiable director in America," adding that despite some misguided efforts along the way, "many other Fleischer films are genuine entertainments."

Richard O. Fleischer was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Dec. 8, 1916. His mother wanted to give him the middle name Owen but for no apparent reason abbreviated it to "O."

He was a Brown University graduate and attended Yale University's drama school. In 1942, a talent scout recruited him to RKO-Pathe pictures, editing newsreels.

"Deadlines were obviously very tight," he later told the Guardian of London. "We had one day to turn thousands of feet of material into one reel, plus do the research and write the commentary. It gave you an instinct: Even now I can run a piece of film and know to the nearest frame where to cut it. Nowadays, a film school can show you what to do, but nothing concentrates the mind like doing it for paying customers."

He also helped make short films, including cheeky, silent-era tributes called flicker flashbacks, and worked on two films, "Child of Divorce" (1946) and "Banjo" (1947), that were intended to transform the RKO child actress Sharyn Moffett into the next Shirley Temple.

As director, Mr. Fleischer shared the Academy Award for best documentary feature for "Design for Death" (1947), showing the political and economic influences that led the Japanese to invade Pearl Harbor. The script was credited to Dr. Seuss and his wife, Helen Palmer.

From there, Mr. Fleischer made several superior "B" pictures, including "The Clay Pigeon," "Follow Me Quietly" and "Trapped" (all 1949) as well as "Armored Car Robbery" (1951). He also made the 3-D bullring picture "Arena" (1953), but he said the bull was terribly friendly and undermined the menace it was supposed to convey.

Another project, "The Happy Time," (1952) with Walt Disney child star Bobby Driscoll led Disney to offer Mr. Fleischer the directing job on "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (1954), a Jules Verne adventure starring Kirk Douglas and James Mason.

This grandiose color film for Disney led to several spectacles: "The Vikings" (1958) with Douglas and Curtis; "Barabbas" (1962), a Biblical epic with Anthony Quinn; "Fantastic Voyage" (1966), about a group of doctors miniaturized and sent into a dying body; and "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (1970), a restaging of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor that he co-directed with Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda.

Mr. Fleischer also made "Che!" (1969), with Omar Sharif as the Argentine-born guerrilla fighter. His enthusiasm for the picture waned when the studio "forced" script changes "so that nothing was seen from Che's point of view," he told the Guardian. "I was tempted to leave the picture, but that's something I've never done in all my career, so I stuck with it."

He also stuck through "Doctor Dolittle," later saying he wanted to give Rex Harrison "a swift kick in the head" for making all manner of divalike demands about music and casting.

Further, Mr. Fleischer reported that a parrot kept calling "cut" during elaborate scenes and that a squirrel got buzzed from gin that someone had fed it as a tranquilizer. The film became a symbol of motion-picture excess in John Gregory Dunne's book "The Studio" (1968).

Mr. Fleischer went on to make "Mandingo" (1975); "The Jazz Singer" (1980), with an ill-fated pairing of Neil Diamond and Laurence Olivier; "Amityville 3-D" (1983); and two Arnold Schwarzenegger pictures, "Conan the Destroyer" (1984) and "Red Sonja" (1985).

Mr. Fleischer became heavily involved in merchandising Betty Boop and tried in the early 1990s to stir interest in an animated feature. He also wrote a memoir, "Just Tell Me When to Cry" (1993), that spoke bluntly of the stars he knew but, like many of his films, seldom wallowed in self-regard.

Survivors include his wife of 62 years, Mary Dickson Fleischer of Los Angeles; three children, Bruce Fleischer of State College, Pa., Mark Fleischer of Los Angeles and Jane Reid of Oakland, Calif.; and five grandchildren.

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