April 24, 1922 – October 1, 2019
Eric Pleskow, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Europe who became a risk-taking, artistically inclined movie mogul, presiding over seven Oscar winners for best picture as a studio chief at United Artists and co-founder and chief executive of Orion Pictures, died Oct. 1 at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 95.
His death was confirmed by Eva Rotter, managing director of the Vienna International Film Festival, which Mr. Pleskow had led as president since 1998. She said Mr. Pleskow developed respiratory problems about two weeks before his death.
As a studio head, Mr. Pleskow was responsible for two of the three films to receive all five major Academy Awards, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991). He was also credited with building his companies into havens for independent-minded directors, granting wide creative latitude to filmmakers such as Woody Allen and Jonathan Demme.
Sometimes I felt like the Medici,” Mr. Pleskow once said, referring to the Florentine political dynasty that lorded over a flourishing Italian art scene.
Raised in Vienna, where his family’s home was seized by the SS after the Nazi annexation of Austria, Mr. Pleskow launched his movie career with help from a streak of remarkable good fortune. In 1939, his family took what he described as “virtually the last train” out of town, traveling to Paris and on to New York City, where his mother got a job sewing curtains for a documentary film production.
Mr. Pleskow, a teenager, was hired as a secretary at the movie company. His English skills were limited, his film experience nonexistent. But he rose from coffee boy to assistant editor and, after being drafted into the Army, was assigned to Gen. Robert A. McClure, a specialist in psychological warfare who noted that Mr. Pleskow had worked in the movie business, albeit briefly.
Formed in 1919 by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith, UA was on the brink of bankruptcy in the early ’50s, recovered in part with the Pink Panther and James Bond franchises of the 1960s, but was still losing tens of millions of dollars each year by the time Mr. Pleskow was named president in 1973.
Leading the studio into the black, he presided over a string of commercial and artistic hits, beginning with “Cuckoo’s Nest,” directed by Czech filmmaker Milos Forman from a novel by Ken Kesey and a play by Dale Wasserman. In Mr. Pleskow’s telling, a treatment for the film had been going around Hollywood for about a decade when he signed on to the project after meeting with Forman, who astonished the producer by showing up in sandals and socks.
The film’s best-picture win kicked off a three-year streak — a first in Hollywood history — in which the studio took home the top Oscar, winning for Sylvester Stallone’s boxing classic “Rocky” (1976) and for “Annie Hall” (1977), starring and directed by Allen.
Erich Pleskoff was born in Vienna on April 24, 1924, and raised in an elegant building blocks from Sigmund Freud’s office. The family name was later changed, and Mr. Pleskow dropped the “h” from his own given name. His mother was a tailor with Hungarian ancestry, his father a salesman with Russian roots.
His wife, the former Barbara Black, died in 2009. Survivors include two children, Michelle Abt and Tony Pleskow; and four grandchildren.
In the Jewish Historical Society interview, Mr. Pleskow reflected on growing older, in a home decorated with a shelf full of awards. “I have a few Oscars in my apartment, and that’s dangerous,” he said. “I was short of breath the other night, a few weeks ago, and I had to call the ambulance. And they came in and they saw the Oscars and forgot why they came in.”