On this day in 1986, the director, producer and character actor Otto Preminger dies at the age of 80. Preminger, a Jew who fled Austria before World War II, more than once played Nazis on stage and screen. As a director, he earned a reputation as an exacting and often tyrannical force on the set, as well as a rebel who challenged film censorship.
Born in Vienna, Preminger began producing plays during law school, which he finished before he was 20. Law degree in hand, he decided instead to pursue theater, and within a decade he was managing his own theater and had directed his first film, Die Grosse Liebe (The Great Love). With the rise of Nazism in Germany and the increasingly uncomfortable climate for Jews in his own country, Preminger left Austria for the United States in 1935. That year, he directed the play Libel on Broadway. He then moved to Hollywood to begin working in films. Due to a falling out with the 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck, Preminger was fired as the director of Kidnapped (1938) just a few weeks into filming.
Preminger returned to Broadway as an actor and director. In the early 1940s, he cast himself as a Nazi in the hit play Margin for Error. Asked to play the role in the 1943 film version, produced by 20th Century Fox, he agreed–on the condition he could direct as well. Zanuck was off with the army making documentary films, and no one at Fox objected. Preminger was still around later in the year, directing the noir mystery Laura (1944), when Zanuck returned. He reportedly allowed Preminger to stay on as director only because an early look at the film led him to believe it would fail. Instead, it became a box-office smash and earned Preminger the best reviews of his career.
In the 1950s, Preminger promoted the use of wide-screen technology with films like Carmen Jones (1954). Throughout his career, he challenged the repressive Hays Code, which placed strict limitations on the language and content of Hollywood movies. In 1953, Preminger directed the comedy The Moon Is Blue, adapted from a stage play he had also directed. After he refused to cut the forbidden words “virgin” and “pregnant,” the film was denied the Production Code Seal of Approval and condemned by the Catholic Church and conservative groups. Preminger sued some local censorship boards, and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the boards could not stop the showing of the film. The Moon Is Blue became a box-office hit. Preminger broke barriers again in 1955, when he dared to treat the taboo subject of heroin addiction in The Man with the Golden Arm, starring Frank Sinatra. His 1959 hit, Anatomy of a Murder, featured a frank discussion of rape. Taken together, Preminger’s films undoubtedly contributed to speeding up the process of revising the restrictive Production Code standards.
Preminger was known to terrorize his actors–his nickname was “Otto the Terrible”–and a few Hollywood stars reportedly refused to work with or even speak to him. His private life was also tempestuous: He was married three times, and after the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee died in 1971, Preminger revealed he was the father of her 26-year-old son, Erik Kirkland, who was then working as the filmmaker’s casting director and assistant. Preminger adopted Kirkland, who subsequently changed his name to Erik Lee Preminger.