When Martin Scorsese presented him with the Jean Hersholt
Humanitarian Award in 2005, I’m sure many people watching the Oscarcast around
the world had no idea who Roger Mayer was. Hollywood insiders and the community
of film archivists knew him well as a fair-minded business executive and a
generous benefactor. I was lucky enough to call him a friend.
Roger suffered a heart attack on Tuesday at 89. He had a
bout of health problems last year that had many of us worried but he eventually
rallied, so this news comes as a shock.
Roger belied his age for many years, chairing meetings with
vigor and enthusiasm and raising funds for causes he cared about. My wife and I
learned that it was difficult—nearly impossible—to say no when he hit you up
for a contribution.
Even after he retired from Turner Entertainment he remained
active on the boards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Motion
Picture and Television Fund, the National Film Preservation Foundation, the Los
Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry,
among others, giving of his time and expertise in countless ways. He was a
master negotiator who understood the handling of delicate egos; he knew when to
impose rules and when to bend them.
Trained as a lawyer, he broke into the movie business in the
1950s working for the irascible Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures. Cohn respected
Roger, but only to a point. When, after many years, Roger told him he’d gotten
a better job offer, Cohn gruffly told him to take it. He did.
When I first met him in the 1980s he was a Vice-President of
MGM, which was still in its longtime home in Culver City. I asked if he was any
relation to the legendary Louis B. Mayer and, with a sly smile, he said he wasn’t—but
never discouraged anyone from thinking otherwise if it accrued to his benefit.
Roger was largely responsible for MGM investing in its film
library, long before the age of home video, and saving thousands of 35mm
negatives that might have otherwise disintegrated. He pooh-poohed the idea that
he was a visionary and said it just made good business sense to protect a
company’s assets. He brought the same solid thinking to his long tenure as
president of Turner Entertainment and even weathered the storm of controversy
over his boss’ endorsement of colorization. I’m sure I’m not the only friend
who avoided the subject whenever possible.
Roger was of a generation that was taught to give back, and
he set a standard we can only hope that younger movers and shakers in Hollywood
will follow. He was a pragmatist but also had a big heart…and he genuinely
cared about movies.
Most of all, he was devoted to his family, especially his
soul mate Pauline, a bright, positive woman who was always at his side during
their 62-year marriage. When he read that my Movie Guide was shutting down last fall he and Pauline insisted on
taking Alice and me to dinner, and we had a long, lovely evening together. I
value it now all the more.
If you’d like to get a sense of Roger Mayer, I encourage you
to watch this excerpt from the 2005 Academy Awards:
It’s easy to mouth platitudes like “we will not see his like
again” but in the case of Roger Mayer, the clichés seem valid. He leaves a void
that will not be easy, or even possible, to fill: a kind, generous man whom I
think of as irreplaceable.