Walter Mirisch, responsible for many of the best, and most honored, films of the last 50 years, has just published his autobiography,
The book could have easily been titled From Bomba to Oscar, since Mirisch got his start making cheap Monogram Westerns and Bomba the Jungle Boy pictures in the 1940s and early ’50s. He worked his way into producing movies that are locked into place on almost everyone’s top-10-movies-of-all-time lists, like Some Like It Hot (1959), The Great EscapeThe Apartment (1960), West Side Story (1961) and In the Heat of the Night (1967). He also served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1973-77. (1963),
Most interesting for readers of True West, however, is that Mirisch also produced a handful of truly exceptional Westerns, including The Magnificent Seven (1960), John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers (1959), Anthony Mann’s Man of the West (1958) starring Gary Cooper and several of Joel McCrea’s best pictures, including Wichita (1955) in which McCrea starred as Wyatt Earp. McCrea and Mirisch were very close, and Mirisch still remembers how touched he was when McCrea gave him a Cadillac out of gratitude, at a time when Mirisch was still pretty fresh in the business.
I spoke to Mr. Mirisch by phone from his office in California.
The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape have to be the two greatest father-son bonding movies of my generation.
I never have thought of them that way, but I do have to say they’ve helped me with my sons (laughs).
In terms of the fact that they like them so much, and they’re such great fans of them. And the fact that I’m involved in both of them; I sort of get a little respect out of that.
John Sturges made some great movies.
Well, those are the great movies of his life, I think.
They have the best ensemble casts, the best Elmer Bernstein scores—
Well, there was nobody as good as John at making that multiple character movie. You got to know every one of those guys, and you felt for them in Magnificent Seven as you did in The Great Escape.
Do you think that was his greatest talent?
I do think so. Well, those were his best pictures and that story, the multiple character story, I don’t think has been done any better by anybody anywhere.
It’s also interesting that those actors, like Steve McQueen and James Garner, came out of TV and became stars.
That’s so of course, but those were outstanding people, and it would have happened anyway. Jim Coburn, Charlie Bronson—that talent had to break through.
The stories of Steve McQueen’s shenanigans in The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape have become the stuff of legend. I’ve heard Yul Brynner, growing tired of McQueen’s attention-getting maneuvers, told him:“Cut it out—All Ihave to do to steal any scene is take off my hat.”
(Laughs) I never knew that to be true, and frankly I would doubt that it ever happened, because I don’t think that Yul would have said anything about upstaging McQueen; it would have never occurred to the king.
Still, it’s great fun watching McQueen grabbing the scene.
Well, I tell my one story that explains the relationship where Steve said to Yul, you know that Horst Buchholz is going to steal the picture from us, and Yul said, no he’s not. Cause that was the kind of cool that Yul Brynner had, you know, he wouldn’t reduce himself to talking about upstaging McQueen. He said, I know that Buchholz is not going to steal the picture because I read the script!
Brynner’s cool really worked.
It was very special, it was what made him a unique personality. He was very secure, even at that very early stage of his career.
Eli Wallach was pretty amazing—Ican’t help wondering what you thought when you saw him in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly a few years later?
I must say, my best Eli Wallach story is, about a year and a quarter ago. The Museum of Modern Art did a retrospective of my pictures, and Eli was kind enough to come and speak. He’s 90-ish now, and he really broke me up. He said, to the audience at the theater, “before I met Walter, I was just another Jewish actor from New York. After I met him, I became a Mexican bandit for life.” (Laughs.) And it’s true. And that’s what makes it as funny as it is, and as real as it is. So he became a Mexican bandit for life. And I give John Sturges credit for that. When he first mentioned it to me, I said, “Are you crazy?” He said, “No, no just wait. Think about it a little bit—this can be really something.” (Laughs.)