Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,545

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,545

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This is the grave of Ross Hunter.

Born in 1920 in Cleveland (although this might be speculative; evidently there was long belief that he lied about his age), Martin Fuss grew up in a Jewish household, pretty middle class it seems. He joined the military in World War II, where he worked in Army Intelligence. He went back to Cleveland after that and got a job as a drama teacher at his old high school. Now, evidently Hunter was hot, or so his students thought. They thought he looked like an actor. So they took some pictures of him and sent them to studios in Hollywood. Paramount was actually interested and so he moved out there, thinking he might have a chance. Paramount in fact passed, but Columbia signed him in 1944. I am not sure why he was no longer in the Army by that time. In any case, Ross Hunter was a much better name for the movies than Martin Fuss, at least back in those days. It was a Columbia casting agent who suggested this and the name. I wonder, did these guys just have a set of stock names to give out to unfortunately named actors?

Now, Hunter was no great actor and while he did get cast in a number of parts, they were mostly bad movies. Probably his biggest achievement in starring in Budd Boetticher’s A Guy, a Gal, and a Pal. Other films included Ever Since Venus, Louisiana Hayride, She’s a Sweetheart, Hit the Hay, Out of the Depths, and Sweetheart of Sigma Chi. Anyway, Hunter was good enough, I guess. He often got cast in musicals across from Judy Canova. So he was a guy. But he wasn’t making a ton of money and certainly was never going to be a real lead.

So Hunter left Hollywood for awhile and started teaching drama again. But he missed Hollywood. He liked it, even if he wasn’t going to be a big star. He decided it was time for a second act, not in the movies, but making the movies. He decided to move back and become a producer. Now working behind the camera, he was able to first get back into the movies as a dialogue director. He worked on a bunch of films doing this in the early 50s–The Jackie Robinson Story, Woman on the Run, The Sword of Monte Cristo, When I Grow Up. He lated stated that his break came from Ann Sheridan, who he worked with on Woman on the Run and who took a liking to the guy and promoted his talents in the industry.

In 1951, Universal hired Hunter as associate producer for Flame of Araby, one of these classic Hollywood Orientalist films of the era that are mostly hard to watch. I mean, I just rewatched Lawrence of Arabia the other day and it is one of my favorite films of all time but my god it is hard to watch Alec Guinness play a Saudi. And that says nothing about Guinness’ performance, which is excellent. In any case, Hunter did the one thing that would enamor him to upper management–he found $172,000 to cut out of the budget. That got attention! The major producer for Flame of Araby was Leonard Sullivan, who started using Hunter consistently and then he started moving right up the ladder in this role–Steel Town, The Battle at Apache Pass, Untamed Frontier, The Duel at Silver Creek, Son of Ali Baba (speaking of Orientalism–Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie are the leads!!!), Take Me to Town.

All of successful associate producing led the studios to try Hunter out as lead producer. He did a few smaller productions and then produced Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession, today considered one of the iconic films of Hollywood in the 50s. I don’t personally love the melodramatic stuff from this period, but there’s no question the film was a success. This was the film that made Rock Hudson a big star, it made a ton of money for the studios, and it meant that Hunter was now a major producer. There were a ton of movies over the years that we could mention. A few of the most important are Imitation of Life, Pillow Talk, and much later, Airport! Now, with Imitation of Life and Pillow Talk, Hunter became the most successful producer at Universal and arguably, all of Hollywood. He had always wanted to be a major figure in the pictures and now he was.

But when you look back at Hunter’s career generally, it’s mostly filled with alright pictures. I don’t really know how much this differentiates him from other major producers. This gets to another point–how often do we really think about producers? We don’t. Ever since the early 70s focus on the auteur director (as problematic as that has been), that’s the focus when we think about good pictures, along with the actors of course. Film nerds might really get into cinematographers (yes please!) or costume design. Criterion Channel even had a series once on Saul Bass and his iconic title cards, which was actually really great. But producers? At best, they are tolerated by film fans, a necessary evil. I don’t know if this is right or not, but the money man who wants to reduce costs and rein in the crazy director and his big ideas is never going to be a romantic figure.

But still, the totality of Hunter’s career is certainly not bad at all and probably better than the vast majority of producers. Some of his other bigger films include Tammy and the Bachelor, Interlude, My Man Godfrey, This Happy Feeling, A Stranger in My Arms, Midnight Lace, Flower Drum Song, Dark Angel, Tammy and the Doctor, The Thrill of It All, The Chalk Garden, I’d Rather Be Rich, and a bunch more. Now, I don’t think a single one of these is a classic. But Winkler made money for the studio and from that perspective, he was the best. These films include working with many of the top directors and actors of the era.

By the mid 70s, an aging Hunter was mostly reduced to television, but that was hardly surprising. He was an old guy doing old guys work and Hollywood had changed a lot. He had success there. His last project was the TV movie The Place to Be, with Donna Reed. Seems appropriate–two icons of Hays Code era Hollywood, both still making a good living doing the work. That was in 1979. He retired after that.

Hunter died in 1996. He was 75 years old.

Ross Hunter is buried in Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California. I am not sure any producer can be described as “beloved,” but OK whatever, it’s your gravestone.

If you would like this series to visit other producers nominated for the Academy Award in 1971, as Hunter was for Airport, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frank McCarthy, the former Army officer turned producer who won that year for Patton, is in Richmond, Virginia. Howard Minsky, nominated for Love Story, is in West Palm Beach, Florida. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

I should state as well my continued appreciation for those funding my New Orleans conference/grave trip and to note as well that I have other trips coming up that are taking me to Georgia (where I will be graving across the state like Sherman in 1864) and Tennessee, so any help on those trips 100% means more graves of southerners, which means the best and most definitely the worst Americans. Feel free to suggest people with a donation! A few of you have with the New Orleans donations and I will see what I can do.

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