Mort Abrahams, film producer

BORN: 26 March, 1916, in New York. Died: 28 May, 2009, in Sherman Oaks, California, aged 93.

WITH its terrifying talking apes, pursuing terrified half-naked humans through the fields on horseback, Planet of the Apes (1968) remains one of the best and most popular science-fiction films ever made.

Back in the 1960s this notion of a world ruled by chimpanzees, played by actors in monkey suits, did indeed prompt a terrified reaction from studio executives – they were terrified that such a crazy idea would cost the studios millions and cost them their jobs.

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Mort Abrahams tramped from unenthusiastic studio to unenthusiastic studio, refusal to refusal, along with partner Arthur P Jacobs.

Twentieth Century-Fox put up $20 million for their other big project, Doctor Dolittle (1967), which was also about talking animals. But the new young studio boss Richard Zanuck threatened to throw them off the lot if they ever mentioned Planet of the Apes again.

Finally, Zanuck decided it was might be worth a gamble after all, following the success of another sci-fi film, Fantastic Voyage (1966). Ironically, while Doctor Dolittle was a box-office flop, the film about talking chimps made a fortune. It launched one of the most successful film franchises ever, with spin-off television series, and helped develop the market for film tie-in merchandising.

Abrahams had previously worked in television. He produced Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (1950-55), America's first science-fiction serial, and The Man from Uncle (1964-68).

After splitting with Jacobs, he worked as a producer on such films as The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), with Barbra Streisand, The Greek Tycoon (1978), with Anthony Quinn, and The Holcroft Covenant (1985), with Michael Caine.

The son of a stockbroker, Abrahams was born in New York in 1916 and came to showbiz via economics and statistics. The Bank of America had pumped a fortune into films, many of which flopped, and one of Abrahams' jobs was to assess the potential value of old films in the new television market.

Fascinated by the new medium, he began working as a TV writer and producer. He got to know Jacobs in the 1950s while producing the General Electric Theater US TV series, for which Jacobs did publicity.

Jacobs set up his own film company, Apjac, and had various films in development by the time Abrahams joined him as executive vice-president, adding practical experience to Jacobs' raw ideas and enthusiasm. Abrahams was the man who had to see the ideas through.

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Jacobs had spotted the potential in the original French-language novel La Planete des Singes (1963), by Pierre Boulle, who had also written the source novel for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). The novel supplied the basic idea of astronauts arriving on a planet where apes rule and humans are the inferior species.

Jacobs, Abrahams and a succession of scriptwriters added various key elements. They tapped into prevailing fears about the Cold War and nuclear apocalypse and introduced the famous denouement with the Statue of Liberty.

Abrahams hired writers and actors, talked finance with potential backers and even came up with the storyline for the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), which introduced subterranean human mutants to the mix of apes and subservient humans.

He was one of the last surviving members of the cast and crew for the original Planet of the Apes film. I met him when researching my book The Legend of the Planet of the Apes (2001). He was a convivial host, a mine of information and a great story-teller.

Planet of the Apes belongs to a select group of films which are products of their time, while remaining timeless classics. It works on various levels from action movie to political allegory.

It appealed to the emerging counter-culture, while brilliantly exploiting Charlton Heston's iconic image as a symbol of America and western civilisation, dating from the biblical epics in which he starred.

Heston plays the arrogant, cigar-chomping leader of the ill-fated space mission. It is impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, though Marlon Brando was approached and John Wayne was considered.

The film may have been in tune with a new readiness to challenge established values, but Heston was no long-haired hippie. He once thanked God for the atom bombs that were dropped on Japan.

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I remember asking Abrahams what the famously right-wing actor thought of the political elements in the film. He told me he and Jacobs had deliberately decided not to point out that there might be a political meaning to any of this, to Heston or the studio, and that neither Heston nor Fox noticed or mentioned it to them. It worked. Sometimes actors are at their best when they do not have to think about what they are doing.

Abrahams is survived by his wife, Dorothy, and a daughter.

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