As Easy Riders/Raging Bulls and other books on the pre-Star Wars 1970s have noted, the early to mid-seventies was in many ways a last gasp for mainstream serious Hollywood movies. And John Calley, the head of Warner Brothers at the time, was one of the men who brought them to you. Nikke Finke of Dateline Hollywood reports that Calley recently passed away at age 81:
Born in New Jersey, Calley joined the entertainment industry at the age of 21, landing a job in the NBC mailroom in New York after serving in the U.S. Army. That job led to positions of increasing responsibility in sales, production and programming during the network’s formative years, with Calley eventually becoming director of nighttime programming. From there, Calley went on to become VP of Henry Jaffe Enterprises, where he was responsible for developing and producing musical entertainment for films. He next moved to Ted Bates Advertising as VP in charge of radio and television programming.
Beginning his career in television production in the 1950s producing such classic series as Mr. Ed, Calley would go on to produce for Filmways pics like The Loved One, The Cincinnati Kid, Castle Keep, Ice Station Zebra, Topkapi, The Americanization Of Emily, and Catch-22. While filming Joseph Heller’s novel of wartime insanity, Calley became identified with a seismic shift in Hollywood’s balance of power, as his official biography notes. “The late 1960s ushered in a new generation of younger filmmakers just as the major studios were discovering the vast potential of the youth market. ‘Kids were kings. After Easy Rider, everything was exploding everywhere,” Calley recalled in a 1999 newspaper interview. ‘We were all young, it was our time, and it was very exciting. The founders were no longer in charge … What had been this rigid, immobile structure had completely come apart, and what was left was a lot of freedom.’”
Calley became head of production, president, and vice chairman of Warner Bros from 1968 until 1981 under the leadership of Ted Ashley and Frank Wells and ownership of Steve Ross. That studio entered a critical and financial heyday with such acclaimed films as Dirty Harry, A Clockwork Orange, McCabe And Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, Enter The Dragon, Mean Streets, The Exorcist, A Star Is Born, What’s Up Doc, Blazing Saddles, The Towering Inferno, Dog Day Afternoon, Jeremiah Johnson, Klute, All The President’s Men, Superman, Barry Lyndon, Chariots of Fire, and Woodstock.
Calley became known for introducing a new level of cool quotient to the studio executive suite: he eschewed suits for blue jeans, and fostered friendly relationships with filmmakers from Stanley Kubrick (who for years was one of Calley’s closest confidantes), to Clint Eastwood and Sydney Pollack to Federico Fellini, among many others. While at Warner Bros, Calley was responsible for all of Kubrick and Eastwood’s films. Calley also was responsible for films released under the First Artists, Orion, and Ladd Company banners.
The mercurial Kubrick remained under contract at Warner from 1971 until his death in 1999, presumably thanks to his initial good relations with Calley, who also gave Eastwood wide latitude as a director. After leaving Warner in the early ’80s, “in 1996, Calley joined Sony Pictures Entertainment as President/CEO,” Finke writes. “At the time he took over with Amy Pascal, Sony Pictures had suffered huge losses. But then, slowly, the studio began to turn around with the first Spider-Man blockbuster which became a lucrative franchise. The good financial health of the studio today has Calley’s 7-year tenure there to thank for it.”