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Alan Ladd Jr., Oscar-winning producer behind ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Braveheart,’ dies at 84

Ladd Jr. was also responsible for major films like “Once Upon a Time in America,” “The Right Stuff,” “Blade Runner” and Ben Affleck’s “Gone, Baby Gone.”
Alan Ladd Jr. in Los Angeles in 1975.
Alan Ladd Jr. in Los Angeles in 1975.David F. Smith / AP file
/ Source: Variety

Oscar-winning producer and influential motion picture executive Alan Ladd Jr., who ushered in the “Star Wars” era of motion pictures, died Wednesday. He was 84.

“With the heaviest of hearts, we announce that on March 2, 2022, Alan Ladd, Jr. died peacefully at home surrounded by his family. Words cannot express how deeply he will be missed. His impact on films and filmmaking will live on in his absence,” his daughter Amanda Ladd-Jones, who directed the documentary “Laddie: The Man Behind the Movies,” wrote on the film’s Facebook page.

During his tenure at 20th Century Fox in the late 1970s, Ladd greenlit “Star Wars,” a $10 million sci-fi film that would become the yardstick for blockbuster movies and tentpole film franchises thereafter. He was the son of golden age film star Alan Ladd, best remembered for “Shane,” but in many ways, Ladd Jr. had a more substantial effect on Hollywood than did his famous dad.

In later years, Ladd became an independent producer, and his most notable accomplishment was 1995 Oscar best picture winner “Braveheart,” starring and directed by Mel Gibson.

Ladd led Fox through a crucial period in the ’70s and later topped MGM (twice). He also ran the Ladd Co., one of the first major boutique production companies as well as an independent distributor of many of its own films. Despite financial troubles, the Ladd Co. was responsible for such major films as “Once Upon a Time in America,” “The Right Stuff,” “Blade Runner” and, more recently, Ben Affleck’s “Gone, Baby Gone.”

Affectionately known in the industry as Laddie, Alan Ladd Jr. was noted for his good taste, his warmth and general low-key (some said inaudible) manner, which made him a singular personality among top studio executives. He had the scruples to quit his $2 million-a-year job as head of 20th Century Fox because his staff was not being compensated well enough for its efforts on such blockbusters as “Star Wars” and “Alien.” He represented an older era in Hollywood when executives and even agents (he started his career as an agent for the likes of Robert Redford and Judy Garland at CMA under Freddie Fields) still possessed a modicum of gentility. While that made him popular with filmmakers like George Lucas, Norman Jewison and Ridley Scott, it also brought criticism from a new generation of executives and agents who were more bold, brash and cutthroat.

But then, most of them did not come from Hollywood royalty like Ladd (and fellow executive producer Richard Zanuck). Alan Walbridge Ladd Jr. did not come to live on his father’s Holmby Hills estate, where the likes of Bing Crosby and Gary Cooper would stop by, until he was in his teens, having spent most of his formative years with his mother, following his parents’ divorce. His father died at age 50 in a possible suicide. Ladd Jr. rarely spoke of his father and bridled (or rather shuddered) when questions about him were raised in his presence.

He worked briefly in his stepfather’s real estate business after serving in the Air Force. Then, in 1963, the self-professed movie buff he took at job at Creative Management Associates and traveled between L.A. and London, where he got his first taste of independent production with such films as “Villain,” “The Walking Stick” and “A Severed Head.”

In 1973 he joined 20th Century Fox as a VP of production, moving up to head of production in 1974 and president in 1976. His start was rocky, but thanks to such hits as “The Omen,” Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie” and the $500 million-grossing 1977 blockbuster “Star Wars,” Ladd quadrupled income and net profits at the company from 1974 through his departure in 1979. He also nurtured prestigious pictures like “All That Jazz” and “Breaking Away.”

He was handsomely compensated for his success: the sum of $2 million a year was then a high point for studio executives. But besides the phenomenon of Lucas’ “Star Wars,” which had been turned down by several other studios, Ladd was also responsible for another Fox franchise film, Ridley Scott’s horror sci-fier “Alien,” and such strong women’s vehicles as “The Turning Point,” “Julia,” “An Unmarried Woman” and “The Rose.” (“Alien” featured a female heroine played by Sigourney Weaver — then unheard of in such a male-oriented genre). He also greenlit such high-concept, high-grossing comedies as “Young Frankenstein” and “Silver Streak.”

When he exited after a philosophical dispute with company chairman Dennis Stanfill, Fox went into a deep slump from which it would not start to recover until the arrival of Barry Diller in 1984.

Warner Bros. then offered to set up and help fund the Ladd Co., to which he brought his faithful cadre of executives. Jay Kanter (also a former agent), Gareth Wigan and Ashley Boone. Among the company’s early releases was “Body Heat,” which launched the careers of actors William Hurt and Kathleen Turner, as well as that of its director, Lawrence Kasdan. “Night Shift” gave Ron Howard his studio movie start. “Chariots of Fire” won the Oscar for best picture in 1981. As a favor to producer friend Paul Maslansky, he produced the inane “Police Academy,” which began another profitable franchise.

But there were too many setbacks at the Ladd Co., which reportedly lost more than $150 million over its tenure through the mid-’80s. Ladd passed on Kasdan’s “The Big Chill,” a definitive movie of that era, and Howard’s “Splash,” a major hit at Disney, and produced such prestigious but costly films as “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Blade Runner” and “The Right Stuff.”

Ladd was then hired by Kirk Kerkorian to head up the United Artists company at his MGM/UA. He would later take over MGM as well. But it was the first of his two tempestuous tenures at the company. Saddled by Kerkorian’s dismantling of the two companies’ assets, Ladd was able to turn out little in the way of valuable and profitable productions — “Moonstruck,” “A Fish Called Wanda” and “Rain Man” were three of the rare hits. After the studio was sold to Ted Turner and a shell of it sold back to Kerkorian, Ladd left in 1988.

He then, oddly, paired up with entrepreneur-con artist Giancarlo Parretti, heading up Parretti’s Pathe company, which acquired MGM/UA in 1990. But Parretti was always one step ahead of the law (here and abroad) and finally had to relinquish the studio amid a mountain of debt. During this period, saddled with debt and a lack of production and marketing funds, Ladd managed to get off only the hit “Thelma and Louise.”

When Frank Mancuso, former head of Paramount Pictures, was brought in by MGM/UA creditors Credit Lyonnais, Ladd departed and set up an indie production shop at Paramount, receiving a reported $10 million settlement. At Par, Ladd settled into hands-on movie production again without the management responsibilities or bottom line worries of running a studio or funded company, reforming the Ladd Co. He had many ties to talent, but he was thought to be out of step with a new crop of directors, producers and stars, and his leadership style and taste in material were thought to be passe in the new mega-corporate Hollywood.

Yet in 1996, Ladd found himself on the podium at the Academy Awards accepting the best picture Oscar for “Braveheart,” which had not been expected to win, though Gibson was the favorite for (and won) the best director Oscar. It was precisely the type of old-fashioned epic that had inspired Ladd to enter the movie business.

Ladd also produced well-regarded hit comedies “The Brady Bunch Movie” and “A Very Brady Sequel” during this period, along with underwhelming actioner “The Phantom,” with Billy Zane, and was exec producer on the 1998 all-star take on “The Man in the Iron Mask” toplined by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Ladd took the Ladd Co. off the Par lot in the early 2000s and produced Lasse Hallstrom’s well-regarded “An Unfinished Life” (2005), starring Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez and Morgan Freeman, and Ben Affleck’s critically hailed 2007 Boston thriller “Gone Baby Gone.”