Studio boss who called it quits
Beverly Hills, California
It happened the night of the first sneak preview of his studio's new $5 million film "Rolling Thunder." Alan Ladd Jr., then president of 20th Century-Fox, sat quietly in his seat in the San Jose movie theater, as the film unreeled before its first audience -- until he couldn't take it any more.Skip to next paragraph
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"Rolling Thunder," a picture about a former prisoner of war whose wife is murdered and whose home is robbed, had a devastating effect on the audience.
"When he saw the audience reaction to the film he was shocked," his wife remembers. "He left the theater because people were getting so violent."
Mrs. Ladd told him, "Laddie, you've got a $5 million picture there. You're stuck with it. . . ." They talked about how part of the audience had gotten up and left in protest, but the ones who'd stayed had been whipped into a frenzy by the film's brutality.
"Rolling Thunder," originally okayed by Ladd, was made to fulfill distribution and budgetary requirements at the studio. But Ladd, after seeing it screened, made what his wife calls his "tough decision." She remembers he found the audience reaction "frightening"; he decided the film's influence was not healthy, nor was its image good for the company.
As a result of his stand, 20th Century-Fox never released "Rolling Thunder." It was sold instead to an organization that specializes in exploitation films. Suppressing the film entirely would have involved a lossm impossible form the studio to bear, but now at least its circulation was not so widespread, and it would play to an audience that was only too aware of what they were in for.m
It was a compromise, but by June 27, 1979, his decision had earned him the respect of most of Hollywood. On that date he stunned the movie world by quitting the job that earned him $2 million a year in salary and bonuses as head of 20th Century-Fox on a question of principle.
At the time Ladd was the highest paid studio executive in history, with a string of financial and critical successes trailing him like the wake of a comet: "Stars Wars," "Julia," "The Alien," "The Turning Point," "Young Frankenstein," "An Unmarried Woman," and "Silver Streak." "Star Wars," which he backed when no other studio would take a chance, had broken all box office records, including that for "Gone With the Wind," and "The Godfather," grossing
Suddenly Ladd was throwing it all over and taking with barely into his teens when he went on location to watch his father's superb performance in George Steven's "Shane."
The first film he ever saw?
"Snow White.' . . . I've seen 'Gone With the Wind' many times, 'On the Waterfront,' 'Singin' In the Rain,' 'The Wizard of Oz.' There's just a whole group of pictures one would see over and over again. . . . 'Casablanca,' is on [TV] once a month, and if I see it at the time I'll say, 'Oh, I think I'll watch that again.' There are certain movies you never get tired of. . . ."
That is an unprecedented fusillade of words from Ladd, who is in general of the Gary Cooper "Yup" or cryptic school of interview. To someone meeting him for the first time he seems almost painfully shy.
You wonder, though, how a man who seems as taciturn as Cal Coolidge ran 20th Century-Fox or any studio in a film world known for hype and mega-publicity. Gareth Wegan, who followed him to the Ladd Company, explains how.
Wegan admits he's "withdrawn. He's not extroverted. He doesn't put on a show. But he's a remarkable listener; he hears everything and remembers everything. . . . And he is a great believer in hearing other people's views unencumbered by their first having heard his.
"He prefers to conduct meetings in a very informal and unstructured way . . . . Nothing much seems to be happening, but a lot gets said and done by the end . . . . The reason he succeeds without being an extrovert is because he just is so very good at doing what he does . . . . He has produced not only a record of both quality and commercial successes, but there was also a collective team or family spirit, an inter-reliance and affection in the group at Fox that was quite extraordinary. That went out to a very large number of Fox people in New York and around the world who felt . . . that they played a part in making film X or Y a success."