Helmer Schlesinger eulogized



“Sunday, bloody Sunday!” Michael York proclaimed, taking the stage at the dimly lit Directors Guild of America building Sunday.
The line was a tribute to the late John Schlesinger, whose memorial was being celebrated, and to the DGA’s power outage, which meant there would be no microphones or air-conditioning, no film clips and only emergency lighting at the service.

But the crowd that gathered to pay tribute to one of the 20th century’s preeminent directors — responsible for such cultural milestone pics as “Midnight Cowboy” and “Darling” — who died in July at age 77 after suffering a debilitating stroke in 2000, in the end needed only words. And there were plenty of those from Schlesinger’s long list of colleagues, admirers and loved ones.

‘Saucy wit’ recalled

York recalled the Brit’s “mischievous sense of humor” and “saucy wit” — and breakfasts of toast and marmalade where there was “never any small talk.”

Thesp Kaye Ballard, who introduced Schlesinger to his partner of 36 years, photographer Michael Childers, remembered first meeting the director in 1965 when “we were both a size 12.”

“He told me that working with Madonna had brought on his heart attack,” she said with a smile. “I wonder who will bring on mine.” Schlesinger’s last pic was the Madonna starrer “The Next Best Thing.”

Besides fond, funny memories, there were also poignant ones.

Screenwriter Steven Zaillian said of his work with the Oscar-winning director, who served as his mentor: “I learned how a master went about things.”

Upset over no knighthood

Zaillian also said how Schlesinger had felt slighted by the fact that he was not made a knight by the British Empire before his death. “The knighthood hurt him,” he said. Schlesinger was made CBE, or Commander of the British Empire, in 1970.

Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart, who worked with Schlesinger when he was an exec at Paramount in the 1970s, credited the helmer’s pics with rewriting the lexicon of filmmaking.

Reiterating Schlesinger’s joie de vivre, Bart added, “If life is what happens while you’re making other plans, then I always found your other plans delicious.”

Childers called Schlesinger a “partner, mentor, father and loving support,” and recalled the night Schlesinger told him the story that would become “Midnight Cowboy.” Then there were the “glittering evenings” at their Los Angeles home, where Tennessee Williams and Christopher Isherwood jumped into the swimming pool fully clothed, and Dustin Hoffman played piano to Bette Midler’s belting.

Other speakers included Lily Tomlin, David Hockney, Michael Apted and Stefanie Powers.

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