Walter Mirisch titled his memoir I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History. In truth he made both in abundance.

He was the last of the old-school Hollywood moguls and one of the first of a new breed of independent producers. When Mirisch was born “talking pictures” had not been invented and it would be another eight years before Douglas Fairbanks hosted the inaugural Academy Awards.

He grew up watching the early films of directors such as John Ford and Frank Capra while working as a teenage usher in a New Jersey theater before the Second World War — and after a long and illustrious career in Hollywood, he became the world’s oldest surviving Oscar winner when he inherited the longevity award on the death of Dame Olivia de Havilland in 2020.

He won his statuette as the producer of the best picture for In the Heat of the Night (1967), Norman Jewison’s groundbreaking tale of southern racism starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger.

Tony Curtis, Monroe, and Jack Lemmon on a vintage promotional poster.

The production company run by Mirisch and his brothers Marvin and Harold was responsible for two further Academy Award best picture winners in The Apartment (1960), a rom-com that was directed by Billy Wilder starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (1961).

He was also behind a string of other classic movies, including Some Like It Hot (1959), with Marilyn Monroe, Lemmon and Tony Curtis; The Magnificent Seven (1960), starring Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson and Steve McQueen; The Great Escape (1963), again with McQueen and Bronson; The Pink Panther (1963), starring Peter Sellers, and Fiddler on the Roof (1971).

After the three brothers had founded the Mirisch Company in 1957 at a time when the old studio system was in decline and television was threatening to cut into movie attendance, they built their success on the back of an astute business sense and an innate ability to pick winners.

The three Mirisch’s—Walter, Harold, and Marvin—celebrate their company’s first anniversary, 1958.

Overheads were minimized by only renting studio stages and facilities when needed and maintaining few salaried staff. They also placed an implicit trust in the directors that they hired. “We offered filmmakers what they needed,” Walter said in 1983. “Billy [Wilder] could call me up and say: ‘I’d next like to do a picture about so-and-so’ — and that’s all we’d need to know.”

He became the world’s oldest surviving Oscar winner.

Harold, the oldest brother, died in 1968, and the company continued with Marvin, who died in 2002, as chairman and Walter in charge of production.

A Harvard-trained businessman with a meticulous eye for detail, he saw the producer’s function as creating the space for directors such as Wilder and Jewison to concentrate solely on crafting the films they wanted to make.

This meant taking hands-on control of everything off-set, dealing with what the Los Angeles Times called a “miasma of agents, properties, screen rights, salaries, star temperaments, contract negotiations, lawsuits, legal clearances, logistics, billings, budgets, ballyhoo, release dates and release cities”.

It was a more laissez-faire and less dictatorial approach than that adopted by some of his more domineering predecessors who had built Hollywood, such as Samuel Goldwyn, whose old lot the three brothers rented as their base.

Needless to say, it made him immensely popular with his directors. “Once out of the gate, the Mirisches give you full rein, and never use the whip,” Wilder said. “When you win a race, they let you wear the wreath. And if you break your leg, they don’t shoot you — they let you do it yourself.”

Other disciples included Elmore Leonard, the screenwriter on the Mirisch-produced Mr. Majestyk (1974) and the 1987 TV film Desperado, who dedicated Get Shorty, his satirical novel about Hollywood, to Walter as “one of the good guys”.

Another apostle was Steven Spielberg, who credited Mirisch’s advice and friendship with making him “both a better director and a better person” and praised his support for “multiple generations of dedicated filmmakers”.

Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, 1963.

Yet for all his desire to allow his directors autonomy, Mirisch was no pushover if he felt a mistake was being made that threatened the success of one of his productions — as John Huston found out when making Sinful Davey.

Mirisch vetoed Huston’s plan to cast his daughter Anjelica Huston as the female lead opposite John Hurt and then when he was dissatisfied with the director’s final cut he asked him to re-edit the picture “to make it less draggy and more accessible to American audiences”.

Huston refused and Mirisch re-cut the film himself. The result flopped and the two men, who had previously worked together on Huston’s 1956 adaptation of Moby Dick, never collaborated again.

Of all the films Mirisch produced he remained proudest of In the Heat of the Night, with its message for the ages. “It was very difficult to get that made smack in the center of the civil rights revolution,” he recalled.

Out of concern for Poitier’s safety as a Black man, it was decided to film in Illinois rather than on location in Mississippi and some potential investors withdrew over fears that the film could start riots if shown in the south.

Mirisch refused to back down, insisting that the picture’s message was “too important” to be silenced. “Even today, it has a lot to say to us,” he said on the film’s 30th anniversary in 1998. “Instead of mounting a soapbox and making speeches, it makes its point by dramatizing how a southern redneck sheriff and a black detective are finally able to see one another not as stereotypes but as individuals.”

Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier in a promotional still for In the Heat of the Night, 1967.

His wife, Patricia, (née Kahan) predeceased him in 2005 after a 57-year marriage and he is survived by their three children, Lawrence Mirisch, who runs the Mirisch Agency, Anne Sonnenberg and Andrew Mirisch, a television producer.

Walter Mortimer Mirisch was born into a Jewish family in New York in 1921 and was the youngest of three brothers. His father, Max Mirisch, had arrived in America from Poland as a teenager in the last years of the 19th century to work as a tailor. His mother, Josephine, (née Urbach) was the daughter of immigrants from Hungary and Poland.

He was educated at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and New York’s City College; as a student he took a summer job in a movie theater in Jersey City, where he recalled watching films such as Gone with the Wind and Stagecoach when they were released.

He saw the producer’s function as creating the space for directors.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin he took a post-grad degree in business from Harvard. Turned down for service in the Second World War due to a heart murmur, he was still eager to do his bit for the war effort and moved to Los Angeles to work in a plant making bomber aircraft.

It also meant he was on Hollywood’s doorstep, and once the war was over he joined Monogram, one of the smaller studios specializing in trashy “B” movies. His first film as a producer was Fall Guy (1947) and by 1950 he was head of production at the studio, which had by then been renamed Allied Artists.

Over the next seven years he oversaw numerous low-budget pictures including the Westerns Wichita (1955), which won a Golden Globe, and The First Texan (1956), the sci-fi horror of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and made his first film with Wilder on Love in the Afternoon (1957).

Shirley MacLaine and Lemmon in The Apartment, which won five Oscars including best picture.

On launching his own independent production company with his brothers, he signed a distribution deal for their pictures with United Artists. Their first production, which was a humdrum 1958 Western called Fort Massacre starring the pre-war matinee idol Joel McCrea, disappointed but the Mirisch Company hit the jackpot the following year with Some Like It Hot.

He went on to supervise 67 films under the Mirisch banner, which in total earned 87 Academy Award nominations and 28 Oscars. “They call the producer the man with the dream,” he said. “But a producer must be idealist, pragmatist, diplomat and disciplinarian. He must be both artist and businessman, but above all he must be a showman.”

He served four terms as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences but by the 1980s he had moved the company almost exclusively into television. He was still working into his eighties and in 2016, at the age of 95, was credited as the executive producer of the remake of his 1960 hit The Magnificent Seven.

“He achieved so much in life and in the industry,” Spielberg said. “If you live to be 101 and produced The Apartment, I’d say it’s been a good run.”

Walter Mirisch, film producer, was born on November 8, 1921. He died on February 24, 2023, aged 101