Martin Ransohoff, Producer of TV and Film, Dies at 90
Posted December 17, 2017 6:29 p.m. EST
Martin Ransohoff, a producer who brought lightweight shows like “The Beverly Hillbillies” to television and sophisticated films like “The Americanization of Emily” to cinemas, died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 90.
His son Steven confirmed his death.
With Edwin Kasper, Ransohoff formed the production house Filmways in the early 1950s, focusing at first on the rapidly expanding need for well-made commercials in the early days of television. But by the end of that decade, Ransohoff was looking at expanding into television and film.
The company’s first movie, “Boys’ Night Out,” a comedy featuring Kim Novak, James Garner and Tony Randall, was released in 1962. And its frivolous TV comedies proved popular and durable. “Mister Ed,” about a talking horse, first appeared in 1961 and ran until 1966. “The Beverly Hillbillies,” in which yokels adapt to a life of wealth in California, had its premiere in 1962 and ran into the 1970s. “Petticoat Junction” (1963) and “Green Acres” (1965) continued the rural theme.
“He has become,” The New York Times wrote of Ransohoff in January 1965, “by all odds one of the most widely discussed newcomers to Hollywood’s quickly changing scene.”
Martin Ransohoff was born on July 7, 1927, in New Orleans. His father, Arthur, was in the coffee business. His mother, the former Babette Strauss, became involved in Republican politics once the family moved to Connecticut when Martin was young.
Ransohoff graduated from Colgate in 1949 with a degree in history. He worked in advertising, his son said, then for Kodak, which introduced him to the people who were using Kodak film to make the first primitive television commercials.
“What he told me was, he looked at what they were doing and thought, ‘I could do that,'” Steven Ransohoff said.
Martin Ransohoff became president of Filmways in 1958 with the departure of Kasper. Although the TV series that Filmways produced — “The Addams Family” was another — were often about as silly as television gets, Ransohoff had higher aspirations on the film side of his business.
“One reason Ransohoff’s fortunes are being followed with interest is that, of all the younger producers in Hollywood, none is more committed to the proposition that movies should have something to say in addition to providing entertainment,” The Times wrote in 1965.
A prime example was “The Americanization of Emily,” an anti-war comedy-drama released in 1964 that starred Garner, Julie Andrews, Melvyn Douglas and James Coburn, with a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky. In the days before the motion-picture rating system, that movie embroiled Ransohoff in an industrywide debate over nudity, which was forbidden under the voluntary production code then in use. Ransohoff wanted some in the movie.
“I think there is a big difference when nudity is for comedy and when it is for lust,” he told The Times in 1963, during the film’s production. “Our picture is comedy. The code must be changed to allow nudity in comedy.”
He did not get far with the argument; the film as released was mild by today’s standards. But it was well received by critics. The movie, Bosley Crowther wrote in The Times, “gets off some of the wildest, brashest and funniest situations and cracks at the lunacy of warfare that have popped from the screen in quite some time.”
Ransohoff and Filmways also produced another acclaimed movie about the absurdities of war, “Catch-22,” released in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War. Other movies Filmways produced under his leadership included “The Sandpiper” (1965), “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965) and “Ice Station Zebra” (1968).
Ransohoff continued producing after he left Filmways in 1972. Among his credits were “Nightwing” (1979) and “Jagged Edge” (1985).
His first marriage, in 1951 to Nancy Lundgren, ended in divorce in 1966. He is survived by his wife, Joan Marie Ransohoff, whom he married in 1980; his sons from his first marriage, Steven, Kurt and Peter; his stepchildren, Stephen Bothoff and Erica Kanter; a brother, Jack; and nine grandchildren.
Steven Ransohoff said his father’s legacy, besides the films and TV shows, included the careers he helped start or further.
“Early in his career, he had an uncanny knack for finding really talented people and letting them do their thing,” he said.
One was Paul Henning, a television writer who was elevated to series creator for both “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Petticoat Junction.” Another was Arthur Hiller, who had worked almost entirely in television before Ransohoff brought him in to direct “The Wheeler Dealers” in 1963 and then “The Americanization of Emily.” One of Ransohoff’s executives at Filmways was John Calley, who would eventually run three major studios, Warner Bros., United Artists and Sony.
If Ransohoff appreciated talent, he also appreciated the occasional absurdities of the movie business. In 1979 he described the making of “Nightwing,” a horror movie about killer bats.
“We spent $500,000 building a cave for the vampire bats to roost in,” he told The Times. “It’s the biggest cave ever built. It’s 57 feet by 115 by 85. We wanted them to be as comfortable as possible.”