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Samuel Goldwyn Jr. dies at 88; son of legendary Hollywood studio mogul

Chaplin, Hepburn and Gable were among the luminaries who would come to Samuel Goldwyn Jr.'s parents' home

Samuel Goldwyn Jr. grew up with Hollywood royalty. Charlie Chaplin, Katharine Hepburn, Clark Gable and George Cukor were among the many luminaries who would come to his parents' palatial home for parties or tennis.

But even as a boy, Sam Jr. knew that the house was sitting on precarious financial ground. His legendary father, one of the movie business' original moguls, would regularly mortgage it to make his prestigious films.

When Sam Jr. started his own independent film company, which became a major force in 1980s and '90s Hollywood, he took on modestly budgeted movies that didn't risk the house but often scored with critics and audiences — the Julia Roberts breakout film "Mystic Pizza"; "Longtime Companion," which took up the topic of AIDS; and "The Madness of King George," to name a few.

None were aimed at being instantaneous blockbusters. "I was brought up," Goldwyn said, "in a tradition of patience."

Goldwyn, 88, died Friday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son, Peter.

Although Samuel Goldwyn Sr., who produced more than 100 films including "Wuthering Heights" (1939), "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) and "The Bishop's Wife" (1947), was a founding father of Hollywood, he was in his own way an independent producer. He had to sell his Goldwyn company — which eventually became Metro Goldwyn Mayer — in the silent era because of debt.

"My father always emphasized that this business was like a greased pole, you go up and you go down," Goldwyn Jr. told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. "The important thing is not to be destroyed by failure and not to take hits too seriously."

By the early 1990s, Goldwyn Jr. had built his Samuel Goldwyn Co. into one of three major independent film operations — along with New Line and Miramax — while several other highly touted indie operations had failed.

"The independents who were our fiercest competitors all succumbed to the one-hit-makes-you-a-genius philosophy," he said in a 1992 New York Times interview. "It is a mistake to think you have the magic touch. Show business is roulette.

"If you start to play for stakes you can't afford, there's no way you can survive."

If the stakes looked right, he would bet on new talent. Early in their directing careers, his company got involved with Ang Lee's "The Wedding Banquet" (1993) and "Eat Drink Man Woman" (1994); Anthony Minghella's "Truly Madly Deeply" (1990); and Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V" (1989).

Other notable films distributed by the company include "Mississippi Masala" (1991), the gritty "Straight Out of Brooklyn" (1991) and Luc Besson's "La Femme Nikita" (1990).

Goldwyn also bolstered his company with television productions, including the syndicated "American Gladiators." He produced the Oscars telecasts of 1987 and 1988.

For the most part, his career might not have been as glamorous as that of his father, who died in 1974. But Sam Jr. was taught early that the glamour of Hollywood was not what was important.

"I'm often asked what it was like to be part of the old Hollywood, and what people want to hear is how I was dangled on Clark Gable's knee," Goldwyn told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. "But what I remember most is the days my father's movies were paid off."

Samuel Goldwyn Jr. was born Sept. 7, 1926, in Los Angeles. He went to prep school and attended the University of Virginia, then left for a stint in the Army before getting a degree. He worked in film in London, then for the CBS news operation in New York.

In the mid-1950s, Goldwyn came back to L.A. His first Hollywood film as producer was the 1955 western "Man With the Gun," starring Robert Mitchum. In 1960 he produced one of Michael Curtiz's last films, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," and in 1964 came his sole outing as a director with "The Young Lovers," starring Peter Fonda.

His best-known period in the business is the 1980s and early 1990s. He had a particular fondness for 1994's "The Madness of King George," based on George III's descent into mental illness in the 18th century. It wasn't exactly a box-office natural, but Goldwyn fell in love with playwright Alan Bennett's take on the tale when he saw it on the London stage.

"Good movies are what I wait my whole life for," Goldwyn said in the 1995 L.A. Times interview. "Every so often you get a gut [feeling] on something, you feel, 'I've got to do this picture, I've got to.'"

The bet paid off. The film was a commercial and critical success. Scott Berg, author of the "Goldwyn" biography of Sam Sr., told The Times that the film had "all the hallmarks" of a prestige title by the elder Goldwyn. "It has a sophisticated subject, it used a great screenwriter, it is more about character and emotions than plot and action, and it has superb production values."

In 1995, with tightened margins in the industry and other titles flopping at the box office, Goldwyn was forced to sell the company.

He was not finished, however. In 2003, he produced a film based on the "Master and Commander" books. And his last credit harked back to his father — it was on a 2013 version of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," which Sam Sr. had made into a film in 1947.

As his father had done many times, Goldwyn had staged a comeback. "The name is important," he told Variety in 1997. "The dream is what's more important."

In addition to his son Peter, he is survived by his wife, Patricia Strawn-Goldwyn; sons John, Tony and Francis Goldwyn; daughters Catherine and Elizabeth Goldwyn; 11 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Two previous marriages ended in divorce.

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