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John Calley, longtime studio chief and producer, dies at 81

September 13, 2011 |  8:54 am

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John Calley, a well-known Hollywood figure who led three studios, including most recently Sony Pictures, and produced films such as "Catch-22," "The Remains of the Day" and "The Da Vinci Code," died Tuesday at age 81.

Calley had been ill for several years and his death was confirmed by Steve Elzer, a spokesman for Sony. The precise cause of death was not immediately available.

Born in Jersey City, N.J., in 1930, Calley began his career in the NBC mail room at age 21. He rose through the entertainment industry over the next several decades before becoming associated with the emergence of new voices in Hollywood during the 1960s and early 1970s. While at production company Filmways he produced "Catch-22," an adaptation of the satirical World War II novel written by Joseph Heller. It was directed by Mike Nichols, who became a longtime friend of Calley's.

In 1969 Calley began an 11-year tenure at Warner Bros., where he served as production chief, president and vice chairman and worked on movies such as "The Exorcist," "Dirty Harry," "A Clockwork Orange," "All the President's Men" and "Superman."

He shocked Hollywood in 1980 by quitting his job, beginning a nearly decade-long absence from the business. In 1989 he returned to produce films with Nichols.

"As a friend [John] was always there and always funny," Nichols said in a statement released by Sony. "As a studio head he was unfailingly supportive and didn’t try to do the filmmaker’s job. When he believed in someone he trusted and supported him and when very rarely he had a suggestion it was usually a life saver. In fact  that’s what he was: a life saver."

In 1993 Calley became president and chief operating officer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists, working there for three years before shifting to Sony Pictures. He was named president of the Culver City studio in 1996 and promoted to chairman and chief executive officer in 1998. In keeping with the times, he worked on big-budget blockbusters such as "Men in Black" and "Spider-Man" while running Sony before retiring in 2003.

He produced several films after leaving the studio, including the global hit "The Da Vinci Code" and its sequel, "Angels and Demons."

Calley was the recipient of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences' Irving G. Thalberg Award in 2009, an honorary Oscar given to producers. He was unable to accept in person due to illness.

Calley is survived by daughter Sabrina Calley and stepchildren Emily Zinnerman, David Zinnerman and Will Firth. Memorial arrangements are being planned and will be held at the Sony Pictures lot.

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-- Ben Fritz

Photo: John Calley on the Sony Pictures lot in 1997. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times.

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