Terence Marsh, Who Gave Memorable Films Their Look, Dies at 86
Posted January 18, 2018 5:03 p.m. EST
Terence Marsh, who won Academy Awards for his art direction of “Dr. Zhivago” and “Oliver!” and went on to be the production designer of films as different as “Basic Instinct” and “Spaceballs,” died Jan. 9 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 86.
His wife, Sandra, said the cause was cancer.
Over a nearly 50-year career that he began as a draftsman at Pinewood Studios near London, Marsh worked for such notable directors as David Lean, Carol Reed, John Huston, Mel Brooks, Richard Attenborough, Sydney Pollack and Frank Darabont.
In Reed’s 1968 musical, “Oliver!,” Marsh captured the impoverishment of the London that Charles Dickens described in “Oliver Twist,” the musical’s source.
Reviewing “Oliver!” for The New York Times, Vincent Canby praised the “marvelous sets,” which he said “bring to crawly, scratchy life the streets and marketplace of early-19th-century London.”
Marsh also oversaw construction of the set for the seaside town of Aqaba, the site of a battle in “Lawrence of Arabia,” Lean’s epic drama, which won the Oscar for best picture in 1963; discovered the location outside Madrid that stood in for Moscow’s city streets in Lean’s “Dr. Zhivago” (1965); created the high-tech look of the American attack submarine in “The Hunt for Red October” (1990); and designed the cell block that was a major setting of “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins as convicts.
Marsh and his staff built a four-story, 200-cell set for that film’s fictional Maine penitentiary in an abandoned Westinghouse plant in Ohio.
“People always assume we walked into a big, empty prison and just started shooting, which is probably why Terry didn’t get nominated for an Academy Award, though he should have been,” Darabont, the film’s director, said in 2013 for an article on the Directors Guild of America’s website. “You can’t walk into a 6-foot by 9-foot cell, light it, move a wall and just begin shooting.”
In addition to the two Oscars Marsh won (which he shared with others), he was nominated for two more: for “Scrooge” (1970), with Albert Finney and Alex Guinness, and “Mary, Queen of Scots” (1971), with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson.
Marsh worked with Darabont again on “The Green Mile” (1999), a fantastical prison drama starring Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan. For that prison’s death row, Marsh created a confined space — the opposite of that of “Shawshank” — with just eight cells.
“We tried to give our set a sense of space,” he said in production notes for the film. “A sense of history. And a sense of mystery in a way. We chose the elongated cathedral-like windows because there is a mystical element in this movie, a supernatural element, which we didn’t have in ‘Shawshank.'”
Terence George Marsh was born on Nov. 14, 1931, in London. His father, George, set type at a newspaper. His mother, the former Sheila Mullen, was a homemaker. Terence was fascinated with movies from a young age, an interest that continued during his studies at Hornsey College of Art in London and his two years as a signal engineer with the Royal Air Force.
“I was always crazy about painting and drawing, and I was always crazy about the movies,” he said in an interview for the book “By Design: Interviews With Film Production Designers” (1992), by Vincent LoBrutto. “When I used to go to the movies, I would see this title — art director. I had no idea. I used to think, ‘Art, I love art, and it’s in the movies.'”
He worked for six years as a draftsman at Pinewood, the studio owned by J. Arthur Rank, before finding work as an assistant art director on “Lawrence of Arabia” under production designer John Box, who himself won four Oscars, including two he shared with Marsh. The two would work together through the 1960s.
“I learned how to deal with people and how to get my own way in the most charming, most surreptitious manner,” Marsh was quoted as saying about working with Box in “By Design.”
He added: “A lot of production designers are too channeled to their own particular task; the responsibility is monumental. Sometimes I’m guilty of it. I try not to be, but John could always take an overview.”
He also learned to adapt. When gliders were unavailable for “A Bridge Too Far” (1977), a World War II film directed by Attenborough, Marsh and his staff created them from scratch. And when there were not enough Sherman tanks, he said in “By Design,” they outfitted fiberglass models of them over Volkswagen chassis.
“When you saw them coming,” he said, “you couldn’t tell which ones were ours.”
Besides “Basic Instinct” (1982), Paul Verhoeven’s box-office hit with Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone, Marsh’s many other credits include two other popular thrillers, “Clear and Present Danger” (1994), adapted from the Tom Clancy novel, with Harrison Ford, and Sydney Pollack’s “Absence of Malice” (1981), with Paul Newman.
In the mid-1970s, Marsh began a collaboration with Gene Wilder, the comic actor and writer, on “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” (1975), which starred Wilder and Madeline Kahn. They worked on several other films, including “Haunted Honeymoon” (1986), which Marsh wrote with Wilder.
Wilder recalled his first meeting with Marsh at a hotel in London in his 2005 autobiography, “Kiss Me Like a Stranger.”
After 20 minutes, he wrote, “I felt as I had found my long-lost brother. I loved the English accent, of course, but the simple way he described complicated things, and the humor with which he described them, won me.”
Wilder presented Marsh with the Art Directors Guild life achievement award in 2010. Marsh had retired several years earlier because of deteriorating vision caused by macular degeneration.
In addition to his wife, the former Sandra Rogers, he is survived by three daughters, Georgina, Rebecca and Jocelyn Marsh, and two grandchildren. A fourth daughter, Linda, died in 2016. Marsh’s previous marriage ended in divorce. He lived in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Marsh’s friendship with Wilder led to an introduction to Mel Brooks, who hired him as production designer for “To Be or Not to Be,” his 1983 remake of the Ernst Lubitsch film, and “Spaceballs” (1986), his “Star Wars” spoof.
Marsh had cameo roles in each film. In a pub scene in “To Be or Not to Be,” he played a soldier who opens his mouth, letting his cigarette drop in his cup of beer. In the other film, his wordless part was listed as “Spaceball drum beater.”