Richard Fleischer

Richard Fleischer

Born Richard O. Fleischer in Brooklyn, NY, he was the son of Essie Goldstein and animation pioneer Max Fleischer. Fleischer's' father, who invented and patented the groundbreaking rotoscope technique - a means of combining live-action movement with cartoons - was also the man responsible for bringing the likes of Betty Boop, Popeye and Superman to theater screens in the 1930s and 1940s. Originally intending to pursue a career in psychology, Fleischer enrolled at Brown University after high school graduation, only to shift gears and enter the Yale School of Drama. There he met his future wife, Mary Dickenson, who appeared in several of the plays he directed. While traveling throughout New England with a theater troupe, Fleischer's work attracted the attention of a studio scout who offered him work as a newsreel script writer for RKO-Pathe in 1942. There, he wrote, edited and later directed shorts and documentaries, in addition to a series of silent-era comedy compilations called "Flicker Flashbacks" (RKO, 1943-48). After a few years of service in the Army, Fleischer moved to Hollywood in 1946 and took up work at RKO studio. He won his first and only Oscar at the age of 31 as a producer on his final short-subject, the documentary "Design for Death" (1947) written by Ted "Dr. Seuss" Geisel and his wife, Helen Palmer. Despite this early critical acclaim, as a director, Fleischer was primarily relegated to lightweight family fare and comedies like the Henry Morgan vehicle "So This Is New York" (1948). Soon, he was churning out a steady stream of low-budget thrillers, including "The Clay Pigeon" (1949), "Trapped" (1949) and "Armored Car Robbery" (1950). But with each production, Fleischer learned valuable lessons about his craft, often making due with abbreviated schedules, meager budgets and difficult actors. He demonstrated his impressive mastery of his craft as a genre director with the efficient and suspenseful thriller "The Narrow Margin" (1952), a B-movie regarded by many critics as one of the most effective film noirs ever made.In an ironic twist of fate, it was Walt Disney, his father's longtime rival in the world of feature animation throughout the 1930s, who gave Fleischer the biggest break of his career. Impressed with the director's work on the coming-of-age charmer, "The Happy Time" (1952), Disney offered Fleischer the job of helming an incredibly ambitious adventure, based on one of Jules Verne's' most famous novels. After receiving his father's blessing, Fleischer accepted the challenge of directing Disney's live-action fantasy epic, "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (1954). Boasting an all-star cast that included Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre and James Mason as the maniacal Capt. Nemo, the lavishly produced film went on to become a massive hit for Disney's Buena Vista Pictures - the second highest grossing film of the year - and won a pair of Academy Awards for Art Direction and Special Effects. For his part, Fleischer earned high marks from Disney and his contemporaries for handling several larger-than-life personalities and problematic effects (like the infamous giant rubber squid) with a combination of calm and aplomb.With the success of "20,000 Leagues," Fleischer was now a top-flight director. Following the commercial disappointment of the underappreciated (at the time) southwestern noir, "Violent Saturday" (1955), he helmed the first of his films inspired by real-life crime stories "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" (1955). He showed his aptitude helming big-budget extravaganzas once more with the sweeping epic, "The Vikings" (1958), starring Douglas and Tony Curtis and gorgeously shot by legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Returning to true-crime material, Fleischer dramatized the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder trial in "Compulsion" (1959), then helmed the religious epic "Barabbas" (1961), starring Anthony Quinn as the man sparred crucifixion after Pontius Pilate (Arthur Kennedy) maneuvered to have Christ take his place on the cross. While the groundbreaking sci-fi adventure "Fantastic Voyage" (1966) left audiences breathless, the colossal failure of the fantasy-musical "Doctor Dolittle" (1967) nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox and did little to help his professional reputation.Fleischer reteamed with Curtis for another based-on-fact crime story, "The Boston Strangler" (1968), eliciting a performance from the star that many felt should have earned the pretty boy actor an Oscar nomination. As his career approached the next decade, Fleischer's commercial and critical disappointments began to outweigh the hits. He drew criticism over the subject matter and raised eyebrows over the casting of Omar Sharif as controversial Marxist revolutionary Ernesto Guevara in the biopic "Che!" (1969). Fleischer next directed the American half of the U.S.-Japanese co-production, "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (1970), a recreation of the attack on Pearl Harbor as told from both perspectives that left the majority of critics and audiences unimpressed, despite it awe-inspiring aerial shots. Another examination of an actual crime came with the British drama "10 Rillington Place" (1971), starring Sir Richard Attenborough as one of the U.K.'s most notorious serial killers, John Christie.Based on the novel by Joseph Wambaugh, "The New Centurions" (1972) was a gritty examination of life as a cop in Los Angeles and starred George C. Scott and Stacey Keach and became one of Fleischer's last widely acclaimed films. A cautionary tale of unchecked pollution and overpopulation, the sci-fi thriller "Soylent Green" (1973) starred Charlton Heston and featured Edward G. Robinson in his final screen appearance. A by-the-numbers Charles Bronson actioner, "Mr. Majestyk" (1974), was followed by the almost universally-panned antebellum potboiler, "Mandingo" (1975), a film Quentin Tarantino later hailed as one of the greatest big-budget exploitation movies ever made. Star-studded efforts like the Musketeers knock-off "Crossed Swords" (1977), and the desert adventure "Ashanti" (1979) also failed to re-establish Fleischer's once formidable reputation. With the disastrous critical reception of the highly-publicized remake of "The Jazz Singer" (1980), starring Neil Diamond and Sir Laurence Olivier, Fleischer's return to the world of B-movies was all but assured.Fleischer wound down his lengthy and diverse career as a hired gun, overseeing a string of forgettable pictures that included the lackluster horror movie "Amityville 3-D" (1983), the Arnold Schwarzenegger sword and sorcery sequel "Conan the Destroyer" (1984), and the Conan the Barbarian spin-off "Red Sonja" (1985). Almost completely ignored in theaters, the gimmicky caper comedy "Million Dollar Mystery" (1987) became Fleischer's final offering as a feature film director. Semi-retired, he kept busy as the licensor of his father's Betty Boop and Koko the Clown properties. In 1993, Fleischer published his autobiography, Just Tell Me When to Cry, the title of which was inspired by an actress' response to the director's long-winded explanation of her character's motivation near the beginning of his storied career. More than a decade later, he published another memoir, this time covering his father's groundbreaking career in animation, titled Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution. Having been in poor health for the better part of a year, Richard Fleischer died in his sleep at the age of 89 on March 25, 2006. By Bryce Coleman