Obituary: Robert Halmi Sr., prolific TV producer
As producer, executive producer or head of a production company, Robert Halmi Sr. had his hand in more than 200 long-form narrative TV projects, including “Lonesome Dove”; “Call of the Wild”; and “In Cold Blood.”
The New York Times
NEW YORK — Robert Halmi Sr., a Hungarian-born, adventure-loving photographer for Life and other magazines who in a second career after age 50 became one of television’s most prolific producers of movies and miniseries, often adapted from literature, died Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 90.
His son Robert Jr., who is also a producer, said the cause was an aneurysm. Just an hour before his father’s death, he added, they had been working on plans for a movie version of “King Lear,” set in contemporary London and starring Kelsey Grammer.
“He went home from work and died at the house,” Halmi Jr. said.
As producer, executive producer or head of a production company, Mr. Halmi had his hand in, by his son’s estimate, more than 200 long-form narrative TV projects. They included “Lonesome Dove” (1989), the celebrated miniseries starring Robert Duvall about a cattle drive, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry; “Call of the Wild” (1993), an adaptation of the Jack London novel; and “In Cold Blood” (1996), a four-hour version of Truman Capote’s true-crime tale.
“I 100 percent believe that television is a bad thing,” Mr. Halmi said in a 2007 interview with the Archive of American Television. “It took the books out of children’s hands. I’m trying to do my little part to correct that.”
He adapted classic literary works such as “Gulliver’s Travels” (1996, starring Ted Danson); “Crime and Punishment” (1998), “The Odyssey” (1997), with Armand Assante; “Moby Dick” (1998), a two-part miniseries with Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab; and “Don Quixote” (2000), with John Lithgow in the title role and Bob Hoskins as Sancho Panza.
Not all of Mr. Halmi’s projects were so high-minded, though they were often alluringly cast. He put Jackie Gleason and Art Carney together as non-“Honeymooners” in a 1985 Prohibition-era comedy, “Izzy and Moe.” He yoked Woody Allen and Peter Falk together as vaudevillians with an age-old feud in a 1996 adaptation of Neil Simon’s play “The Sunshine Boys.” And he cast Jeff Daniels, Ellen Burstyn and Jon Voight in a version of Mitch Albom’s sentimental best-seller, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” (2004).
“Marquee talent loved working with Halmi,” Variety television columnist Brian Lowry wrote, “in part because he treated them like stars, and in part because he allowed them to headline such lavish fantasies, shooting in exotic locales across the globe. He was an impresario, almost like getting to experience a touch of the early studio moguls.”
Mr. Halmi was born in Budapest on Jan. 22, 1924. His parents divorced when he was very young, and he was reared by his father, Bela, a photographer who worked for the Habsburg royal family and the Vatican and who introduced his son to darkroom work before he was 6.
Robert learned English in high school and later graduated from the University of Budapest, where he studied economics. During World War II, he said in interviews, he was jailed by the Nazis. Afterward, he became a translator and assistant for a Time-Life reporter in Budapest and began taking pictures.
Working for U.S. newspapers, he was accused by the Communist government of spying and for a time was jailed again. Eventually he became a broadcaster in Salzburg, Austria, for Radio Free Europe.
He came to the United States in 1950, arriving in New York, by his account, with $5, a small suitcase and a camera. His first job was photographing babies for a diaper service.
Before coming ashore, he had photographed his fellow immigrants on the ship as they arrived in New York Harbor, but he had no money to develop the photos for several weeks. When he did, he took them to Life magazine, and the magazine put him to work. It was in New York that he saw television for the first time.
At Life and in work for other magazines, he specialized in adventure and travel, often taking part in events he would document with his camera. He was a competitive racer in road rallies and once drove in a 3,000-mile race in east Africa, with a Life reporter, for a story called “The Wildest Auto Ride on Earth.”
For a feature called “Great True Hunts” in True magazine, he traveled the globe on hunting expeditions with celebrities such as golf champion Sam Snead and the shah of Iran. His nature photographs have been collected in “In the Wilds of Africa,” “Into Your Hand They Are Delivered” and other volumes.
In the early 1970s, after Life ceased weekly publication, Mr. Halmi made documentaries for television shows such as “The American Sportsman.” His first feature film, “Visit to a Chief’s Son” (1974), starring Richard Mulligan, was based on a photo essay of his that Life had published in 1962 documenting a sojourn that he and a 9-year-old stepson, Kevin Gorman, had shared with the Masai tribe in Kenya. Its focus was Kevin’s friendship with Dionni, son of the Masai chief.
With his son Robert Jr., Mr. Halmi started a production company, RHI Entertainment, in 1979. In 1994, the company was bought by Hallmark Cards, which renamed it Hallmark Entertainment. Halmi Jr. bought it back in 2006, and after it later emerged from bankruptcy protection, the Mr. Halmi, who had never left the company, remained its chief creative force. The father and son formed a new venture, Halmi Co., in 2012.
Three of Mr. Halmi’s five marriages ended in divorce. His third wife, Eleanor Morressey, to whom he was married for more than 20 years, died in 1979.
In addition to his son Robert Jr., he is survived by his wife, Caroline Gray; another son, Bill; his stepson, Gorman; a stepdaughter, Kim Sampson; two sisters, Julie Costello and Jorgie Lask, and 12 grandchildren.