Washington Post: Eric Pleskow, Jewish refugee who led two movie studios, dies at 95
Studio mogul Eric Pleskow in 2007. (Dieter Nagl/AFP via Getty Images)By Harrison Smith
Eric Pleskow, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Europe who became a risk-taking, artistically inclined movie mogul, presiding over seven Oscar winners for best picture as a studio chief at United Artists and co-founder and chief executive of Orion Pictures, died Oct. 1 at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 95.
His death was confirmed by Eva Rotter, managing director of the Vienna International Film Festival, which Mr. Pleskow had led as president since 1998. She said Mr. Pleskow developed respiratory problems about two weeks before his death.
As a studio head, Mr. Pleskow was responsible for two of the only three films to receive all five major Academy Awards, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991). He was also credited with building his companies into havens for independent-minded directors, granting wide creative latitude to filmmakers such as Woody Allen and Jonathan Demme.
“Sometimes I felt like the Medici,” Mr. Pleskow once said, referring to the Florentine political dynasty that lorded over a flourishing Italian art scene.
Raised in Vienna, where his family’s home was seized by the SS after the Nazi annexation of Austria, Mr. Pleskow launched his movie career with help from a streak of remarkable good fortune. In 1939, his family took what he described as “virtually the last train” out of town, traveling to Paris and on to New York City, where his mother got a job sewing curtains for a documentary film production.
Mr. Pleskow, a teenager, was hired as a secretary at the movie company. His English skills were limited, his film experience nonexistent. But he rose from coffee boy to assistant editor and, after being drafted into the Army, was assigned to Gen. Robert A. McClure, a specialist in psychological warfare who noted that Mr. Pleskow had worked in the movie business, albeit briefly.
A still from the United Artists film “Annie Hall” (1977), starring Diane Keaton and Woody Allen. (Moviestore/Shutterstock)
“We’re going to be taking this studio in Munich,” Mr. Pleskow recalled his saying. “Can you run a studio?” Mr. Pleskow, then 21, was not entirely sure. But he signed on and helped rebuild the storied Bavaria Film studio, later used by filmmakers including Elia Kazan, Max Ophüls and Stanley Kubrick. His work attracted the attention of two entertainment lawyers, Robert Benjamin and Arthur Krim, who in 1951 acquired control of UA — and, later that year, hired Mr. Pleskow as an executive in the studio’s foreign department.
The trio formed the core of a management team that resurrected UA from near oblivion, turning what had been a historical but staid Manhattan-based movie company into a profitable, artistically adventurous studio.
Formed in 1919 by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith, UA was on the brink of bankruptcy in the early ’50s, recovered in part with the Pink Panther and James Bond franchises of the 1960s, but was still losing tens of millions of dollars each year by the time Mr. Pleskow was named president in 1973.
Leading the studio into the black, he presided over a string of commercial and artistic hits, beginning with “Cuckoo’s Nest,” directed by Czech filmmaker Milos Forman from a novel by Ken Kesey and a play by Dale Wasserman. In Mr. Pleskow’s telling, a treatment for the film had been going around Hollywood for about a decade when he signed on to the project after meeting with Forman, who astonished the producer by showing up in sandals and socks.
The film’s best-picture win kicked off a three-year streak — a first in Hollywood history — in which the studio took home the top Oscar, winning for Sylvester Stallone’s boxing classic “Rocky” (1976) and for “Annie Hall” (1977), starring and directed by Allen.1 of 58Full ScreenAutoplayCloseSkip Ad×Subtitle SettingsFontDefaultMono SansMono SerifSansSerifComicFancySmall CapsFont SizeDefaultSmallMediumLargeX-LargeXX-LargeFont EdgeDefaultOutline DarkOutline LightOutline Dark BoldOutline Light BoldShadow DarkShadow LightShadow Dark BoldShadow Light BoldFont ColorDefaultBlackSilverGrayWhiteMaroonRedPurpleFuchsiaGreenLimeOliveYellowNavyBlueTealAquaOrangeDefault100%75%50%25%0%BackgroundDefaultBlackSilverGrayWhiteMaroonRedPurpleFuchsiaGreenLimeOliveYellowNavyBlueTealAquaOrangeDefault100%75%50%25%0%Preroll blankSkip
The filmmaker had initially wanted to call the film “Anhedonia,” a word that sent Mr. Pleskow to the dictionary, where he was dismayed to find that it referred to the inability to feel pleasure. “For you and me, it will be ‘Anhedonia,’ but for the rest of the people we need to find a title,” he told Allen, according to a biography of the filmmaker by Marion Meade.
Mr. Pleskow came to bridle at the studio’s corporate owner, Transamerica, which he and other senior managers accused of treating the movie business like a rental-car company. He resigned in 1978 alongside Benjamin, Krim, William Bernstein and Mike Medavoy, who together founded the new studio of Orion.
Established as a joint venture with Warner Bros., the studio became a full-fledged production and distribution company in 1982, when Orion acquired the floundering distributor Filmways. Mr. Pleskow maintained the same hands-off production style that made him a favorite of directors at UA, and the studio released the best-picture winners “Amadeus” (1984), “Platoon” (1986), “Dances With Wolves” (1990) and “Silence of the Lambs.”
“This is one studio that takes on risky projects and nurtures them,” actress and “Lambs” star Jodie Foster told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, after Orion gave her the chance to direct her first feature film, “Little Man Tate.”
Despite its awards haul, the studio struggled financially, failing to score enough hits to offset the losses of movies such as Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Cotton Club” (1984). In 1991, months after “Wolves” won seven Academy Awards, Orion filed for bankruptcy. (It was later acquired by MGM.)
Mr. Pleskow was effectively stripped of his day-to-day duties that year and served as chairman before resigning in 1992. “We never had the financial capability that other companies had and whereas we were not unique in having a couple of bad years, others can withstand this better,” he told Variety.
Erich Pleskoff was born in Vienna on April 24, 1924, and raised in an elegant building blocks from Sigmund Freud’s office. The family name was later changed, and Mr. Pleskow dropped the “h” from his own given name. His mother was a tailor with Hungarian ancestry, his father a salesman with Russian roots.
In interviews, Mr. Pleskow recalled that his family’s survival was linked in part to the death of his brother, whose long illness had kept the family from traveling. Were it not for his passing, Mr. Pleskow suggested, he and his parents would have remained in Vienna, caring for the sick boy, and died in a concentration camp.
Instead, they made their way to the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, where Mr. Pleskow was drafted into the Army. His duties included interrogating German prisoners of war such as Otto Skorzeny, an SS officer who had helped free dictator Benito Mussolini from his Italian captors; and filming the execution of 12 guards from the Dachau concentration camp.
“I wasn’t brought up to watch people hanging, regardless of what they did,” Mr. Pleskoff said in a 2014 interview for the Jewish Historical Society of Fairfield County, Conn. “However, the only way I was able to deal with this was I figured that each of these guys had at least 50,000 Jewish and other lives on their conscience . . . I never mentioned it to my mother, never mentioned it to my wife for years.”
His wife, the former Barbara Black, died in 2009. Survivors include two children, Michelle Abt and Tony Pleskow; and four grandchildren.
After leaving United Artists, Mr. Pleskow received a producing credit on “Beyond Rangoon” (1995), starring Patricia Arquette, and was an executive producer of “The Hollywood Sign” (2001), a crime comedy.
In the Jewish Historical Society interview, Mr. Plesko reflected on growing older, in a home decorated with a shelf-full of awards. “I have a few Oscars in my apartment, and that’s dangerous,” he said. “I was short of breath the other night, a few weeks ago, and I had to call the ambulance. And they came in and they saw the Oscars and forgot why they came in.”