When Denis O’Dell was approached to work on a film with the Beatles he was not at all keen. “I didn’t want to make a pop film, as usually they are just a vehicle for making money,” said O’Dell who had worked his way up in the business from teaboy and driver to producer.
“I said I wasn’t interested.” It was his children who persuaded him that the group were something special. And the film began a six-year association with the Fab Four, during which O’Dell produced Magical Mystery Tour, headed their Apple Films company and oversaw numerous abortive projects, including an attempt to film The Lord of the Rings with John, Paul, George and Ringo in the main roles. Tolkien said no.
In the early 1970s he became Sean Connery’s partner in a production company called Tantallon Films, named after the picturesque clifftop castle in East Lothian. Announcing the establishment of the company, Connery was excited to have O’Dell on board. “A good man… He’s done the lot,” he said.
The company made only one film, the highly regarded drama The Offence, which showcased just how good an actor Connery was. Sharing working-class roots, O’Dell got on well with the notoriously suspicious Scottish star and they worked together again on Robin and Marian and Cuba.
Robin and Marian is a neglected gem and one of Connery’s best films, with Connery as an ageing Robin Hood opposite Audrey Hepburn’s Maid Marian.
At the end of the decade O’Dell was called in as executive producer and production manager to try to stem the haemorrhaging of cash on the troubled epic western Heaven’s Gate.
One of nine children, O’Dell was born in London in 1923. He won a scholarship to grammar school, but never took his place as his parents were unable to afford the uniform.
He left school at 15 and worked initially as a teaboy at Denham Film Studios before getting some early uncredited experience as an assistant director. During the Second World War he enlisted in the RAF, but hopes of qualifying as a pilot were dashed when it was discovered he was colour-blind.
After the war, he returned to the film industry, initially as a driver. By the mid-1950s he had been assistant director on a wide variety of films, from Scrooge to Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, at which point he changed direction slightly, gaining experience as an associate producer in film and television.
It was in that capacity that he was hired to work on the 1964 Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night. He was also associate producer on the black comedy How I Won the War and a key figure in recruiting John Lennon for his only acting role in a non-musical film.
O’Dell later recalled: “A few days after Brian Epstein's death I was having lunch with Richard Lester at Isleworth Studios, London, when I received a telephone call that was to have an enormous impact on my life for the next three years. It was John and Paul. Denis, it's us! Can you come and meet us in the next few days? Sure. What about? We've been thinking. We want you to come and run us.”
When the Beatles set up Apple in 1968 O’Dell became a director of the main company and head of Apple Films. A distinctive figure in a suit and tie, with heavy glasses and a mop of curly hair, O’Dell became a linchpin between the group and the business world.
But it was a frustrating experience. The animated film Yellow Submarine used Beatles songs, but O’Dell could not persuade the group to record the dialogue scenes and actors were hired to voice the characters.
O’Dell went to the Maharishi’s retreat in India with the Beatles and took over Ringo’s hoard of baked beans when Ringo left early.
The four Beatles were often pulling in different directions and the documentary Let It Be proved a fractious affair. That film actually grew out of a suggestion by O’Dell for a half-hour television documentary, entitled Beatles at Work.
You Know My Name (Look Up The Number), the B-side of the single Let It Be, includes a section where Lennon jokingly introduces McCartney as Denis O’Bell, who then sings the refrain in the style of an old-school lounge singer.
And fans did look it up. Despite the slight change in the surname, O’Dell was bombarded with calls. “There were so many of them my wife started going out of her mind. Neither of us knew why this was suddenly happening.
“Then I happened to be in one Sunday and picked up the phone myself. It was someone on LSD calling from a candle-making factory in Philadelphia and they just kept saying, ‘We know your name and now we’ve got your number.’”
Ideas that might have had the Beatles working with Jean-Luc Godard and Joe Orton and playing d’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers came to nothing. O’Dell did manage to get The Magic Christian off the ground, with Ringo Starr and Peter Sellers and a team of writers that included John Cleese and Graham Chapman.
It was another tricky shoot, with Sellers proving difficult to work with. Yet O’Dell brought it in on time and under budget, and the financiers treated O’Dell, Ringo, Sellers and director Joe McGrath to a free voyage on the QE2 as a reward.
O’Dell had a reputation for running a tight ship and joined Heaven’s Gate at a point where it was already way over budget and schedule. He was involved towards the end of shooting and helped make arrangements for Oxford to double as Harvard. United Artists were threatening to shut down production if director Michael Cimino did not meet strict terms on schedule and spending.
The film was finished, but was a box-office disaster, though many critics now regard it as a masterpiece. It was O’Dell’s final credit before being credited as one of the many producers on Peter Jackson’s recent three-part documentary series The Beatles: Get Back for Disney, for which he supplied previously unseen footage.
O’Dell moved to Spain and published his memoirs in 2002, entitled At the Apple’s Core. He is survived by two children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce. One son predeceased him. He is also survived by his second wife and by two children from that marriage.
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