National News

Dan Talbot, Impresario of Art Films, Is Dead at 91

Posted December 31, 2017 5:46 p.m. EST
Updated December 31, 2017 5:51 p.m. EST

Dan Talbot, one of the most influential figures in the world of art-house film as an operator of Manhattan theaters — including Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, which is scheduled to close Jan. 28 — and a founder of the film distribution company New Yorker Films, died Friday at his home in New York. He was 91.

His death was confirmed by Ewnetu Admassu, the general manager of Lincoln Plaza.

Manohla Dargis, co-chief film critic for The New York Times, summed up Talbot’s impact in a 2011 interview with him at the Cannes Film Festival, where in his 80s he continued to see four to six films a day. She described his theaters as places where “generations of moviegoers have had their minds and worlds expanded, and even blown.”

Talbot was always realistic about the narrow appeal of his product. In 1987, interviewed during a Public Theater retrospective, “The Age of New Yorker Films,” he described his chosen field as “a very financially masochistic business.” In fact, he told Dargis (and others) what he thought of the term show business: “It’s not a business. It’s a casino.”

And he acknowledged that the audience for art-house films was both small and static. “It’s an elite, college-educated, well-traveled group, and it’s very determined,” but it isn’t growing, he told The Times in 1981.

Talbot chose to trust his own tastes. “When I look at movies, I don’t think of the box office,” he said in the same interview. “If it appeals to my aesthetic sense, if it has some artistic foundation, I take a chance with it.” And that system worked.

He introduced U.S. moviegoers to a whole universe of European filmmaking, including the French New Wave and the postwar German auteurs. One of his greatest successes was Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “The Marriage of Maria Braun” (1979), about one German woman’s struggles after World War II, which ran for a full year.

Talbot’s boldest moves included “Point of Order,” 188 hours of the 1954 McCarthy Senate hearings, edited to 97 minutes; “Shoah,” Claude Lanzmann’s almost 9 1/2-hour interview-based documentary about the Holocaust, which aired on PBS after half a year in theaters; and a 1960 release of “Triumph of the Will,” Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous propaganda documentary about the 1934 Nazi Party Congress.

Daniel Talbot was born on July 21, 1926, in the Bronx. His father, Israel, worked as a textile jobber. His mother, the former Jeanne Frances Charak, owned a fabric and notions shop.

After graduating from New York University with a literature degree, Talbot worked in publishing and film — as a book editor, as East Coast story editor for Warner Bros. and briefly as film critic for the pacifist magazine The Progressive. After a year living in Spain, putting together a collection of essays titled “Film: An Anthology” (1959), Talbot returned to the United States and the opportunity that became the New Yorker Theater.

Talbot and his wife, the former Toby Tolpern, learned that the old Yorktown Theater, on Broadway between 88th and 89th Street, was available. They renamed the theater the New Yorker and reopened it in March 1960 as a revival house, presenting “Henry V” with Laurence Olivier and “The Red Balloon” as their first double feature. By 1962, business was so good that the couple bought the lease. By 1964, Talbot was being interviewed for The New York Post by a young writer named Nora Ephron, who described his theater as “a raving success”

It all seemed easy. “The theater had a policy of no policy,” Toby Talbot wrote in “The New Yorker Theater and Other Scenes From a Life at the Movies,” her 2009 memoir. “We thought of it as our living room, playing movies we wanted to see.” The theater branched out into first-run foreign and independent films and presented retrospectives of the work of both actors and directors. The New Yorker’s lobby guest book was signed by the city’s creative elite.

New Yorker Films was founded in 1965 after the Talbots saw a movie they loved at the New York Film Festival. It was “Before the Revolution,” a romantic drama from an unknown 23-year-old Italian director, Bernardo Bertolucci, and the only way they could screen the film at the New Yorker, they learned, was to agree to distribute it.

By the mid-1970s, the couple were devoting themselves full time to distribution, Toby Talbot recalled. New Yorker Films’ hundreds of credits included “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972), “Tampopo” (1985), “The Boys of St. Vincent” (1992) and “My Dinner With Andre” (1981). The company ceased operations in 2009 but was later revived under new owners.

In the intervening years, other projects had come along. Two more Upper West Side theaters came and went. And the theater that became Dan Talbot’s final legacy began a 37-year run across the street from Lincoln Center.

Lincoln Plaza Cinemas opened in April 1981 with three screens (later expanding to six). Dan Talbot described it as “a supplement on a year-round basis to the New York Film Festival.” The first film that played there was Federico Fellini’s “City of Women.” The theater’s current features include “Darkest Hour,” a British drama starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill; “1945,” a black-and-white period drama from Hungary; and “Loving Vincent,” a Polish-British coproduction about the life of Vincent van Gogh.

It was revealed in mid-December that the real estate company Milstein Properties, which operates Lincoln Plaza with the Talbots and Gaumont Films (a French studio), would not be renewing the theater’s lease.

In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1950, Talbot is survived by three daughters, Nina Talbot, Emily Talbot and Sarah Tanzer; and four grandchildren. Although he had been ill for some time (in May he did not attend Cannes, where he had been an enthusiastic regular since 1967), Talbot continued to be involved in the industry. He wrote an article, “Fragments From the Dream World: Reminiscences of a Film Distributor and Exhibitor,” for the spring 2017 issue of Cineaste.

On the Friday afternoon before Christmas, he even dropped by Lincoln Plaza to catch a movie. “He watched the Haneke film,” Admassu said in a telephone interview, referring to the German-Austrian director Michael Haneke’s “Happy End.” “And he asked how business was.”

Talbot disliked cinematic pretentiousness. He told Ephron that his work should never be viewed “with solemnity.” In the 1981 Times interview, he insisted that his programming choices had never been intended to shape audiences or advocate any ideology. They were chosen, he said, just to “demonstrate the full glory of movies.”