Denis O'Brien, Force of the ex-Beatle's Film Company, dies at age 80

Denis O’Brien, who along with George Harrison, the former Beatle, founded a production company that made several daring blockbuster film...


Denis O’Brien, who along with George Harrison, the former Beatle, founded a production company that made several daring blockbuster films, starting with “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” in 1979, before the partnership and fortune of society did not fester, died on Friday in Swindon, west London. He was 80 years old.

Her daughter Kristen O’Brien said the death, in a hospital, was caused by intra-abdominal sepsis.

Mr. O’Brien became Mr. Harrison’s business manager in 1973, hired to bring some stability to Mr. Harrison’s financial affairs, which had been in turmoil since the Beatles split four years earlier. And when Mr. Harrison’s friend Eric Idle of the Monty Python comedy troupe went to see Mr. Harrison with a problem in 1979, it was Mr. O’Brien who instigated Mr. Harrison to produce movies.

Monty Python had started work on a follow-up to his 1975 hit, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. The new film was a satire on a man who is mistaken for the Messiah. Mr. Idle’s problem was that EMI, the entertainment conglomerate that had funded the new film, had gotten cold feet and pulled out just as production was brewing. He asked if Mr. Harrison could help financially, and Mr. Harrison in turn consulted with Mr. O’Brien.

“Denis called me back a few days later and said, ‘OK, I think I know how to do it: we’ll be the producers,’” Mr Harrison told The Advertiser of Australia in 1986. “He laughed because he knew my favorite movie was “The Producers” – the comedy by Mel Brooks – “which I had watched over and over again.”

Mr Harrison, pledging his estate in Henley-on-Thames, England, provided some $ 4 million to make “The Life of Brian from Monty Python.” It was the first release of Handmade Films, the production company he had created with Mr. O’Brien. As Mr. Idle told the story, Mr. Harrison had a simple reason for funding the film: he wanted to see the film.

“At $ 4 million, it’s still the highest amount anyone has ever paid for a movie ticket,” Mr. Idle wrote in an essay in The Los Angeles Times in 2004.

In his account, Mr. O’Brien had actually structured the project on the assumption that the film would lose money and that it could be a tax deduction; instead, it became a hit and a beloved entry in the annals of comedy films. Time out recently ranked it # 3 on his list of the 100 greatest comedy movies of all time, behind “Airplane!” and “This is a spinal puncture. “

With “Brian” Handmade Films enjoyed a string of critical and often financial successes, including “The Long Good Friday” (1980), a crime drama starring Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren; “Time Bandits” (1981), directed by Terry Gilliam of the Python troupe and starring other Pythons; the black drama “Mona Lisa” (1986), another vehicle for Mr. Hoskins; and the comedy “Withnail & I”, which has become something of a cult classic and was ranked # 7 on that Time Out list.

Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Harrison were the executive producers of these and many other handmade films, and their early successes helped revive the dying British film industry. They shared the taste for quirky scripts.

“We tend to make movies that come to us because nobody else wants to make them,” Mr. Harrison told Newsweek in 1987.

This was certainly the case with “Time Bandits,” a hard-to-categorize film about time-traveling dwarves that they struggled to get distributed, making a deal with independent Avco Embassy Pictures only after the waning. major studio distributors.

“There have been a number of majors that have left screenings,” Mr. O’Brien told the Los Angeles Times in November 1981, just after the film had a robust opening weekend.

But Handmade’s Midas touch didn’t last. Some of his movies were costly bombs, most notably “Shanghai surprise” (1986), a widely worn-out adventure thread that starred Madonna and Sean Penn.

By the 1990s the company was in financial trouble and Mr Harrison quickly turned on his longtime partner, accusing him in a 1995 lawsuit of mismanaging his money. A court later awarded Mr. Harrison more than $ 11 million. When Mr. O’Brien sought to file for bankruptcy, Mr. Harrison attempted to block that statement.

In 2001, when Mr Harrison, then diagnosed with cancer, failed to show up to testify in this legal challenge, a bankruptcy judge dismissed the case. Mr Harrison died later that year at age 58.

In the years that followed, Mr. O’Brien received most of the criticism for the collapse of Handmade, which was sold in 1994 to a Canadian company. In a rare interview with the Belleville News-Democrat of Illinois in 1996, Mr. O’Brien, then living in the St. Louis area, provided his own interpretation.

“As long as we’ve been successful we’ve had a wonderful relationship,” he said of Mr. Harrison.

“Money is not the important aspect here,” he added. “It wouldn’t make any difference if it was a dollar or a million dollars. It’s George who doesn’t know how to accept failure or take responsibility for it.

Mrs. O’Brien, her daughter, used to visit Mr. Harrison’s estate with his father as a child, playing in the elaborate gardens which were Mr. Harrison’s pride and joy. The falling out, she said via email, was painful for her father.

“I know he felt as hurt and betrayed as Harrison, I’m sure,” she said.

Denis James O’Brien was born on September 12, 1941 in Saint-Louis. His father, Albert, worked for Ralston Purina, where he became president; her mother, Ruth (Foster) O’Brien, was an office manager for an interior design store as well as a housewife.

Mr. O’Brien played basketball at Webster Groves High School near St. Louis before earning a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University and a law degree from Washington University in St. Louis. .

He worked at the Parisian law firm Coudert Frères from 1967 to 1969, then held financial positions at NM Rothschild & Sons and the EuroAtlantic Group, based in London.

In 1971 he began counseling comedic actor Peter Sellers, who recommended Mr. O’Brien to a friend of Mr. Harrison.

Mr. Harrison was known to enjoy pythony humor, but Mr. O’Brien also had a sense of playfulness. Michael Palin, one of the Pythons, recalled by email that Mr. O’Brien was calling him and claiming to be Mr. Sellers. Funny accents were a favorite gag – Kristen O’Brien said that when she or her sister, Laura, called their dad, they sometimes found themselves talking to “Fritz the German”.

On “Life of Brian”, Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Harrison let the Pythons do the film, but Mr. O’Brien then got more involved in the creative side of the films he was funding. Critics said it contributed to the downfall of the company; however, screenwriter Stephen Rivele (“Ali”, “Nixon”), who along with writing partner Chris Wilkinson wrote seven screenplays for Handmade in his later years (though none were produced), has said his experience with Mr. O’Brien had been positive.

“On each draft he gave neat handwritten notes, which were always as insightful as they were polite,” Rivele said via email. “He had very insightful ideas and original ideas which invariably improved the scripts.”

Mr. O’Brien returned to England in 2008 after living near St. Louis for some time. When he died he was living in Little Somerford. He has been married four times, most recently to Phyllida Riddell O’Brien, who died in 2019. In addition to his daughters – who came from his first marriage, to Karen Lazarus – he is survived by a brother, Douglas.

Ms O’Brien said that over the past year her father had shown signs of dementia, which appeared to alter her memory of his relationship with Mr Harrison.

“He seemed to have forgotten that there had already been a falling out,” she said, “and this past year he loved hearing George’s music, and that would take him back to some great times in his life. He only had good memories.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Denis O'Brien, Force of the ex-Beatle's Film Company, dies at age 80
Denis O'Brien, Force of the ex-Beatle's Film Company, dies at age 80
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