He was the first to guide an X-rated film to the top of the Oscar heap, introduced the Beatles to Hollywood in the mid-1960s with “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” and convinced a reluctant Ian Fleming that, yes, James Bond might fare pretty well as a cinematic character.
A third-generation movie man, David V. Picker was a studio chief at United Artists, Columbia and Paramount amid a prestigious run of box-office successes including the erotic drama “Last Tango in Paris” (1972), starring Marlon Brando, as well as “Ordinary People” (1980), which was based on Judith Guest’s novel about a suburban family struck by tragedy.
Mr. Picker died April 20 in New York City. He was 87 and had colon cancer, said his wife, Sandra Jetton Picker.
Mr. Picker’s risk-taking side led to “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), a curious and oddly disturbing story about a friendship between a Manhattan street hustler (Dustin Hoffman) and a kid from small-town Texas (Jon Voight) under the impression that he could make a living as a gigolo.
To up the risk factor, Mr. Picker turned to a director just coming off a flop and a public acknowledgment that he was gay (John Schlesinger) and handed the story to a screenwriter (Waldo Salt) who had been blacklisted after being identified as a communist. To complicate matters, the film earned an X rating.
Yet somehow, it all worked. “Midnight Cowboy” won three Academy Awards, including one for best picture.
Not everything turned to gold for Mr. Picker, however. He passed on “Nashville” (1975), which is generally considered to be director Robert Altman’s masterpiece, and was at Columbia when the studio released “Ishtar” (1987), the madcap Morocco comedy starring Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty that is often rated among the worst films ever made.
David Victor Picker was born on May 14, 1931, in New York, and it seemed inevitable that he would end up in the movie business.
His grandfather, a Russian immigrant, operated a nickelodeon in the Bronx, and from there built a small chain of theaters in the city. His father Eugene ran the chain, and his uncle Arnold was the vice president of United Artists, as well as finance chairman for Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) during his 1972 presidential campaign. His sister, Jean Picker Firstenberg, was the longtime president of the American Film Institute.
His marriages to Caryl Schlossman and Nessa Hyams ended in divorce. In addition to his third wife and his sister, survivors include two daughters from his first marriage and a grandson, according to the New York Times.
After graduating in 1953 from Dartmouth College and completing a stint in the Army, Mr. Picker got his first job — $110 a week selling ads for United Artists. He moved up quickly, shifting from Columbia to United Artists to Paramount.
When the Beatles said they couldn’t complete their three-movie deal because of their increasing busy and chaotic work schedule, Mr. Picker solved the problem by producing an animated film, “Yellow Submarine” (1968), to complete the deal. And after others had failed to secure movie rights to Fleming’s Bond character, Mr. Picker got the deal done. The first Bond film came out in 1962.
“When the first James Bond movie, ‘Dr. No,’ was made for a million and a half dollars, it was not as if we said, ‘Oh, boy, what a great franchise,’ ” Mr. Picker later told Variety. “We just saw an idea that we responded to, and we made a not very expensive movie that began a phenomenon.”
Twenty-six films and more than half a century later, the “Bond” franchise endures.
Mr. Picker said he was forever amazed at the power of cinema.
“Film has never failed to fascinate, start and end trends, satirize, expose, investigate, entertain, make a difference and reach across every strata, division, parameter, language and aspect of life in the civilized world,” Mr. Picker wrote in “Musts, Maybes and Nevers: A Book About the Movies,” his memoir. “Everyone has two businesses: their own and the movies.”