Oscar Profile #409: M.J. (Mike) Frankovich

Born September 29, 1909 in Bisbee, Arizona, Mitchell John (Mike) Frankovich was one of four children of immigrant Yugoslavians Yova and Melica Frankovich. When the children were small, the Frankovich family left the copper-mining town of Bisbee en route to California but stopped in Tonopah, Nevada, for several years after the elder Frankovich won its casino in a card game. They moved on to Long Beach, California, where he owned a fishing fleet. After Yova Frankovich abandoned the family, his wife moved to Los Angeles, where Mike and a brother excelled in high school football, gaining scholarships to the University of California, Los Angeles, on the recommendation of actor Joe E. Brown (Some Like It Hot). While attending UCLA, Frankovich parked cars, planted geraniums and dug ditches to support himself. He began producing radio shows in 1934 during his years as a sports announcer. He also acted in films in uncredited roles from 1935. He got further into the film business by writing screenplays for Universal and Republic Pictures in the late 1930s.
Frankovich was briefly married to first wife Georgiana Feagans from January 1938 to September 1940. The day after their divorce was granted, he married British actress Binnie Barnes to whom he would adopt four children, remaining married until his death. He then served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, earning the rank of colonel. Multilingual, he resumed his work in films in Europe after the war, and soon became a director and executive for Columbia’s British operation.

With the success of 1955’s Footsteps in the Fog, Frankovich’s profile rose and he eventually became production chief for Columbia, moving back to Hollywood in 1963. There he oversaw development of such films as Cat Ballou with Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin, the fact-based In Cold Blood and A Man for All Seasons,To Sir with Love with Sidney Poitier and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in which Poitier co-starred with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

Frankovich gave up his title as first vice president in charge of world production at Columbia in 1967 to become an independent producer. Among the films he then produced were Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Marooned, Cactus Flower, There’s a Girl in My Soup, Butterflies Are Free, 40 Carats and John Wayne’s final film, The Shootist.

As a state-appointed member and president of the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission in the early 1980s, Frankovich helped to bring the Raiders football team to Los Angeles. He also helped negotiate use of the Coliseum as the main venue for the 1984 Olympics.
In 1984, at the 1983 Oscar ceremony, AMPAS gave him its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in recognition of his “varied and extensive record of humanitarian activities.”
Mike Frankovich died on New Year’s Day 1992 of complications from pneumonia while suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. He was 82.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

FOOTSTEPS IN THE FOG (1955), directed by Arthur Lubin

Frankovich’s most successful British production in the years when he was the head of Columbia’s British operation was in the mode of Gaslight, The Lodger, Hangover Square and The Picture of Dorian Gray, that were international successes for other studios a decade earlier, Set in Edwardian England, the film starred Stewart Granger as a not as clever as he thinks murderer and Jean Simmons as the Cockney maid who blackmails him. Bill Travers, Belinda Lee, Ronald Squire, Finlay Currie and Marjorie Rhodes led an outstanding supporting cast.

BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE (1969), directed by Paul Mazursky

This wife-swapping comedy was Frankovich’s first film as an independent producer and his only controversial film in a long line of what he called wholesome films. Natalie Wood, having declined an offer for a percentage of the profit with West Side Story wisely chose to accept a similar offer here and made $3 million. Awards recognition, however, went to co-stars Elliot Gould and Dyan Cannon, who received Oscar nominations for their performances, Cannon also receiving the first N.Y. Film Critics prize for Best Supporting Actress. Robert Culpo co-starred as Wood’s husband.

CACTUS FLOWER (1969), directed by Gene Saks

A Broadway triumph for Lauren Bacall became a movie triumph for Ingrid Bergman in her first Hollywood film since the 1940s as the nurse who pretends to be the wife of the unmarried dentist she works for in-order-to keep his latest girlfriend at bay. Walter Matthau played the dentist created on Broadway by Barry Nelson and Goldie Hawn won an Oscar as the girlfriend in the role created on Broadway by Brenda Vaccaro who earned a Tony nomination for her performance. Berman received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress – Comedy or Musical for her performance.

BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE (1972), directed by Milton Katselas

Eileen Heckart lost the Tony for her portrayal of the overprotective mother in the Broadway version to co-star Blythe Danner but won the Oscar in support of Goldie Hawn in Danner’s role of the kookie actress and Edward Albert in the role of her blind son created on Broadway by Keir Dullea. Seventeen people connected with the film including Frankovich, Katselas and Albert reunited for the following year’s 40 Carats which also starred Liv Ullmann, Gene Kelly and Francovich’s wife Binnie Barnes who all but stole the film in her last role as Ullmann’s mother.

THE SHOOTIST (1976), directed by Don Siegel

Contrary to popular belief, John Wayne did not have terminal cancer when making the film as his character did. He was cured of cancer in 1964 but the disease returned in 1979, ultimately killing him. The film was not intended to be Wayne’s last, but that was what it turned out to be, making it one of the most poignant of final films along with those of Clark Gable in The Misfits and Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond. Lauren Bacall, Richard Boone, John Carradine and James Stewart who plays a cameo as the doctor who gives Wayne the bad news, were all cast at Wayne’s request.

M.J. FRANKOVICH AND OSCAR

  • Honorary Award (1983) – Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award

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