Oral History: Walter Mirisch

Walter Mirisch with awardsNarrator: Walter Mirisch (History, 1942)
Interviewer: John Tortorice
Date: April 21, 2008
Total Time: 22:43 minutes
Format: Audio

John Tortorice’s April 2008 interview with Walter Mirisch was used in the UW-Madison History Department Fall 2008 newsletter. Walter Mirisch was also honored in Fall 2009 by the UW-Madison Department of Communication Arts. He is also featured on the UW Alumni Park. Image courtesy of University Communications. Photo by Jeff Miller.

Walter Mirisch biography:

Walter Mirisch received his BA from the Department of History in 1942, completing an undergraduate thesis on the Rome-Berlin axis under the direction of Chester V. Easum (1894-1979). Though initially offered a graduate fellowship to continue his study of history, Mirisch left academia to instead pursue a career as a film producer. In 1957, he formed The Mirisch Corporation with his brothers Marvin and Harold, eventually going on to win Oscars in 1960 for The Apartment, in 1961 for West Side Story, and in 1967 for In the Heat of the Night. He has also produced such films as Wichita (1955), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Midway (1976), and The Pink Panther, both for television and film. He has received the Order of Arts and Letters from the Republic of France, the UCLA medal, and an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 2008, Walter’s memoir I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History was published with the UW Press.


Mirisch: Hello?

Tortorice: Ah, hello Mr. Mirisch?

Mirisch: Hello Mr. Tortorice, how are you sir?

Tortorice: Well fine, thank you. It’s a pleasure and an honor to speak with you.

Mirisch: Well, it’s my pleasure.

Tortorice: Thank you. It’s a beautiful day here in Madison. We finally-

Mirisch: Is it?

Tortorice: It is indeed.

Mirisch: Spring has come to Madison?

Tortorice: Spring has finally arrived.

Mirisch: Well that’s good, very, very good news. I’m glad to hear it.

Tortorice: Thank you.

Mirisch: It’s long overdue, isn’t it?

Tortorice: It is. We have paid a price this winter for living in this part of the country.

Mirisch: Yeah.

Tortorice: But now we’re, you know, really taking advantage of the beautiful weather.

Mirisch: Well, the springs are lovely.

Tortorice: Well, thank you so much for agreeing to do the interview. I’m doing it on behalf of the history department, the history newsletter, and we have a circulation of about 18,000.

Mirisch: My God! Who do you, who is, who are the 18,000 history department people? [laughs]

Tortorice: Well you know it’s, it’s all mostly alumni of the department.

Mirisch: Oh really?

Tortorice: All over the US and Europe and Canada, Israel, so yes, we have …

Mirisch: Well I’m an alumnus of the, of the history department and, nobody ever sent me anything.

Tortorice: Really? Well, I will correct that in a hurry, sir. I’m sorry to hear that.

Mirisch: Well, you know, a lot of us fall between the cracks, as they say.

Tortorice: Yes, well, anyways, what I thought we would do in the article is a brief summary of your extraordinary career and then the interview and then excerpts from your memoir. I should ask you: Do you mind if I tape this so I can then, refer to it for the article?

Mirisch: No, that’s fine.

Tortorice: Ok. Well, let’s get started then. You mention in your acknowledgements in the book that you received a superb education at Madison and a rudimentary grounding in historical research techniques. It’s obvious from the book that your mother played a crucial role in encouraging you to pursue a university degree. But what attracted you to the study of history?

Mirisch: Good question.

[Both laugh]

Mirisch: I would imagine DNA. I don’t know! Who knows? Who knows what makes anyone do anything? Perhaps it was in the air at that time in our history. I guess I was interested in it, and enjoyed learning about the past.

Tortorice: OK, what in particular I was getting at there was your time in Madison, which was I believe was 1940 to [19]42, is that correct?

Mirisch: That’s correct.

Tortorice: Yeah, coincided with Pearl Harbor, with the declaration of war by president Roosevelt, with mass mobilization of the armed forces, and I was wondering how you and your fellow students responded to these events taking place around you, and may[be], whether that in fact might have been a reason that you then wrote this paper with Chester Easum (1894-1979); and also were you aware of the Nazi persecution of the Jews at that period? Was that something that you…

Mirisch: Well, certainly, the, it was clear since Kristallnacht (9-10 November 1938) that, that the Nazis were, were persecuting Jews. I, I, I don’t believe that we knew about the Holocaust, though, the extent to which it was being carried.

Tortorice: Yes. Yes. But would the events of that time have had some influence on your choice of history, and, and trying to…

Mirisch: I don’t know. I, yeah… [laughs] You, you have to get a psychiatrist to do that!

Tortorice: [laughs] Well that I am not!

Mirisch: I don’t know what, what, what does that to people, I don’t think there is any, any single motivating force to, to make Einstein a physicist or me a movie maker.

Tortorice: Okay, were there any courses or professors in the history department that stand out as…

Mirisch: Oh yes. There were some very extraordinary people at that time. William Hesseltine (1902-1963) in American history; I was quite influenced by him. I took a course in the history of the British Empire with Paul Knapland (1885-1964). Do you want me to spell those names?

Tortorice: No, I have those names sir, it is fine.

Mirisch: I, with Chester Easum with whom I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Rome-Berlin Axis. Who was also my advisor, and was very, very good to me. He helped me learn to write somewhat, I think.  And there were other really excellent people then such as Earl Pomeroy, with whom I studied Latin American history. Well they had an outstanding history department as I believe they have continued to do over the years.

Tortorice: Yes. Did you take any courses with Merle Curti (1897-1996)? I’m not sure if he was…

Mirisch: Dr. Curti wasn’t there in my time.

Tortorice: I see. That’s right he came I think in late [19]42. There was [Robert L.] Reynolds (1902-1966) also in…

Mirisch: Yes, I knew professor Reynolds, and he was my advisor for a while. And he taught medieval history. Marvelous man.

Tortorice: Well you know Charles Edson (1905-1988) was still teaching when I arrived at the university in 1969. And he was, and I took his course and he was a great teacher.

Mirisch: Now, what was his name?

Tortorice: His name was Charles Edson and he taught ancient Greek history.

Mirisch: Oh, well, I never did take any ancient history and I don’t remember professor Edson.

Tortorice: Okay.

Mirisch: I passed that, I took Professor [Chester] Higby (1885-1966).

Tortorice: Oh, yes, he was there then.

Mirisch: He was there then. I don’t know. It takes a little remembering to come up with some of these names of so long ago.

Tortorice: Indeed, well you are doing a fantastic job, I must say. I don’t think I could remember all of my professors from not that long ago. In your memoir you mention that you were offered a graduate fellowship in history.

Mirisch: Mmm hmm.

Tortorice: But that the chair suggested you not take it because, quote, “I needed to understand that there really wasn’t much opportunity for a man like myself in the academic world.” You also say that this episode of blatant antisemitism…

Mirisch: Well, I, I assumed it was that, on the other hand he may just have been giving me good advice [laughs].

Tortorice: Yes, well, but you in the memoir you do say that this

Mirisch: I felt that’s what it was.

Tortorice: Well I think I am afraid you were probably right because this

Mirisch: Really, why?

Tortorice: Well, I’ll tell you why. Because Paul Knapland, who I assume this is who you are talking about?

Mirisch: Oh, it’s not true! Oh no! Not true! Not at all! And I wouldn’t ever want that to be put about about Professor Knapland.

Tortorice: Oh, really. Okay, well. Certainly not. We won’t mention any names in this.

Mirisch: I’d really not like to mention.

Tortorice: Oh, of course not, I can understand that completely. You know, he was I guess chair from [19]42 on.

Mirisch: That was after, he was chair then after I left. He was most supportive of everything I wanted to do. I still have copies of letters he wrote recommending me for all kinds of things. He was really a wonderful man.

Tortorice: Well I am so glad to hear that, and that we cleared that up.

Mirisch: I don’t want you to think he was the person.

Tortorice: Right. And it doesn’t really matter. I can see it was someone named … that was chair. We don’t have to go into that in any detail if you do not want to.

Mirisch: I didn’t want to, that’s why I didn’t mention the name in the book.

Tortorice: Yes and we won’t say anything. But I just wondered if this kind of confrontation with prejudice opened your eyes to how antisemitism operated in those years?

Mirisch: Well, it did to a certain extent. It was one of the rare experiences I had in my young life, experienced what I judged to be antisemitism. And I thought maybe I didn’t want to be there in that department with that. And then I decided to take advantage of going to graduate school at Harvard.

Tortorice: Well, we can certainly say that our loss, history’s loss, was Hollywood’s gain. Yet, in fact through the movies that you have made in your long career, you’ve had an enormous influence on the transformation of American society, on the pursuit of equality and social justice, I mean really perhaps more of an influence than you would have had if you had become a history professor.

Mirisch: Well maybe. I think I told the story in the book. And now I’m not sure whether I did or I didn’t. But I don’t know, some years ago, fifteen or twenty years ago it might be, I was asked to preside at a session at a convention of the American Historical Association that was being held Los Angeles. As I recall it was a session on history as it’s been reflected in the movies. I thought that would be fun and so I agreed to participate. At the end of the session an older gentleman came up and said “I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Earl Pomeroy, one of your teachers at Madison and I thought I’d come by and say hello,” and I said of course, it’s so wonderful, thank you, and he said, “You know, I always thought that it was a shame you hadn’t gone on and had a career in history, until I saw the Pink Panther (1963). Then I knew you’d done the right thing.”

Tortorice: Oh that’s funny!

Mirisch: So there you are! I’ve had no regrets since then.

Tortorice: Well, indeed, I mean, I think some of your, your films have had an enormous impact and…

Mirisch: Thank you. I, I’ve, I do, I have made a number of pictures of with historical background.

Tortorice: You have, yes. Ah, I don’t know if we need to get into any specifics, because I know you’re going to be…

Mirisch: Well I made a, I made a Wyatt Earp picture called Wichita (1955), …

Tortorice: Yes.

Mirisch: … I made a biography of Sam Houston called The First Texan (1956), I did an English historical picture about the black prince which was called The Warriors (1955), and then later on I did of course the, The Battle of Midway (1976).

Tortorice: Well I was thinking too, also of course In the Heat of the Night (1967) and some of those other movies.

Mirisch: Yeah well, those, those are really more fictional which hopefully were able to have some kind of, ah, effect on attitudes and …

Tortorice: Yes.

Mirisch: And actually that one with the civil rights revolution that was happening at the very time that we made it.

Tortorice: Indeed. And, and yet that is a film that is now, if we look back on it, for us this is history of the most important kind and it’s difficult to say well, it, it’s fiction and yet the role it plays in the culture in the, in the, in the perception of history, in the perception of time, and space, and memory and all those things that go into historical knowledge is enormous.

Mirisch: Well I’d hoped it would be that, and I, yeah [laughs]. Thank you for saying all that because I, if, if that resonated with you then we, all of us who were involved in the making of the picture accomplished what we sought to do.

Tortorice: Well, I think it’s not only me sir, but anyways. But did, did the, did your immersion in history at Wisconsin your study of history here, did it have an effect in how you subsequently interpreted events, how you chose, ah, projects?

Mirisch: I’ve always been interested in those kind of subjects, I have, I through my entire life I, I’ve done considerable reading of, of history, and it, it’s remained a lifelong interest of mine.

Tortorice: Very interesting, because, I, you know I’m, these are my own thoughts, but I do see that in your, the intelligence that you brought to the selection of films. Now I know your career, you did many different kinds of films, but there’s a, there are some, there is a thread there of, of films that really are, are above the average type of film of your period. You know, I mean it’s, it’s, in, in their historical validity and resonance.

Mirisch: Well I, I hope so and I hope, ah, I hope they, they, they have had, ah, some effect in, in our society, because I, you know, you ah [chuckles]. We set out to make movies not history …

Tortorice: Right.

Mirisch: … but if a little creeps in.

[both laugh]

Tortorice: Yes indeed. Along with the entertainment, which is important I know. Ah, well, you know many graduates of the history department have gone on to make films grounded in historical interpretation, both documentary films, narrative, historical dramas, you know in some ways you could say In the Heat of the Night pushes a little bit towards the documentary, but I’m thinking here of Errol Morris, Michael Mann, Lowell Bergman, who’s the executive producer of Frontline, and did a movie with Michael Mann on that tobacco settlement case [The Insider (1999)].

Mirisch: Yeah.

Tortorice: Robert Stone, Saul Landau (1936-2013), Joseph Losey (1909-1984), Glenn Silber. Joseph Losey was actually here before you.

Mirisch: Oh yeah, I never even knew that, that he had, he had been in school at Wisconsin.

Tortorice: Well you know it’s really quite, quite an extraordinary group of filmmakers, and you know there is this, ah, connection in making films that have historical resonance …

Mirisch: That’s very interesting!

Tortorice: Isn’t that interesting?

Mirisch: There you are, there’s a good subject for an article!

Tortorice: Yes indeed. And in fact we’d like to do something here, on, you know a conference or a showing of films or, to investigate this topic. Because, and you certainly are one of the major, people in this group. And, and you wonder why they all came to Madison and why their careers took the trajectory they did. I know it’s kind of hard to look back and say, well, this, you know, was the cause, but I do think there is some kind of thread there.

Mirisch: Well I don’t know. I don’t find it in mine. It was [laughs] I, I, I went there for more mundane reasons.

Tortorice: [Tortorice laughs] Now, ah, these are more speculative questions here, although I suppose most of these questions are a bit speculative, but anyways, film you know can really offer valuable insights into time, place, memory. Perhaps most importantly today it can present history in a way that is more effective with the visually-oriented students. Do you have any insights in how we …

Mirisch: That’s always been true. I remember when I was very young, wanting to see many of the, the historical films of my youth and, and I learned a great deal from them. And, you know, they weren’t, clearly researched history, but, but they were, ah, fictional, based on historical events, and whether it was, ah, the story of Louis Pasteur or the life of Émile Zola, or whether it was Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940) or Madame Curie, or Alexander Hamilton, or, I could go on and on and on and all those pictures are, are way back in the [19]30s and the [19]40s and, and there’ve always been pictures of, of that type made.

Tortorice: Indeed, yes. It would be, it would be great if we could bring some of our filmmaker alumni and historians together, to work on how to educate the next generation using film. And that’s certainly something we’d love to do.

Mirisch: You know as far as how to educate and how to do that, I, that’s really for historians and educators. Those of us who have sort of done it, don’t necessarily know how to teach it.

Tortorice: Yes. And of course there, there are always the questions of historical veracity and as you know history is always contested and, and there are issues related to how do you assure that there is, that the film is presented within the context of research etcetera. But we do think here that there is potential there for a dialogue, and …

Mirisch; I’m sure there is. I’m sure you’re right.

Tortorice: Yeah. Well I, don’t want to take up any more of your time, sir, I …

Mirisch: No, fine. I, I hope you’ve got enough of these musings.

Tortorice: [laughs] Yes. And if you think of anything you want to add, if you contact Chris Caldwell, he will make sure to get it to me.

Mirisch: Ok! If you write anything about this, I’d appreciate your sending it to me.

Tortorice: Oh I sure will and I’ll certainly put you on our alumni newsletter list [laughs]. I’m sorry sir that you fell off, but, thank you so much for your time and I will, I will say “Hello,” when you’re in Madison when you’re giving a talk.

Mirisch: Good! Good.

Tortorice: Thanks so much!

Mirisch: Ok. Thank you. Bye, bye.

Tortorice: Bye.

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