Michael Anderson, who died last month at the age of 98 at his home on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, directed a diverse array of films, including the historical air-raid drama The Dam Busters, the Oscar-winning comedy Around the World in 80 Days and the dystopian science-fiction drama Logan’s Run.
Mr. Anderson made more than three-dozen movies in a career of more than six decades in England, the United States and Canada, where he spent the last third of his life. Far from being a tormented auteur, Mr. Anderson was known for his even temper and self-effacing personality.
“I’ve never really gone out of my way to cultivate recognition perhaps in the way I should,” he told The Globe and Mail in 1986. “Maybe I should have made a lot more noise in the early days. Directors are expected to make a fuss, even if things are right, but it’s not in my nature.”
His stepdaughter Laurie Holden, an actress who has appeared in The X-Files, The Walking Dead and The Americans, wrote via e-mail: “Michael was the quintessential English gentleman. He had the patience of a saint. I never saw him lose his temper, curse or speak unkindly about anybody, ever. He was a profoundly spiritual person and had a calming effect on everyone around him.”
Mr. Anderson’s most influential film remains his 1955 black-and-white drama The Dam Busters, recounting the 1943 Royal Air Force raid on German hydroelectric dams, which incorporated actual RAF test footage of the “bouncing bomb” created by inventor Sir Barnes Wallis. The carefully researched film starred Richard Todd as Wing Commander Guy Gibson and Michael Redgrave as Sir Barnes, with a script by playwright R.C. Sherriff, and inventive cinematography by his frequent collaborator the German-born Erwin Hillier.
Mr. Anderson and his wife, Adrianne Ellis, had been working to complete his memoirs in time for the 75th anniversary of the raid on May 17.
Novelist David Lodge observed that the film transposed the story of modern technological warfare into a kind of chivalric romance. While the film was “saturated in an archaic and class-ridden ideology of leadership, loyalty and courage derived from the public school ethics, imperialistic adventure stories and memories of the First World War” it held up better than most war films because it was “singularly lacking in hatred” or the vicarious pleasure in violence.
The Dam Busters was a source of inspiration to director George Lucas, who shot much of Star Wars in Hertfordshire at Elstree Studios, where Mr. Anderson worked. Mr. Lucas modelled one of his film’s pivotal scenes – depicting an attack on the Death Star – after a raid sequence in The Dam Busters.
The Dam Busters also cast a spell on The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, who has been trying to remake the classic war film for more than a decade. Previous owners of the film rights include Mel Gibson and the late Sir David Frost.
During the war he served in the Royal Signal Corps, where he befriended the actor, dramatist and director Peter Ustinov and later worked as his assistant director. Mr. Anderson shared his first directorial credit with Mr. Ustinov on the 1949 comedy Private Angelo. The film was based on an Eric Linklater novel and starred Mr. Ustinov in the title role.
Mr. Anderson had his solo directorial debut the following year with Waterfront, which featured a 24-year-old Richard Burton. Of that film, the Daily Telegraph critic Campbell Smith wrote: “I can burn my boats and props that young Michael Anderson is possibly the most promising discovery since Carol Reed and David Lean.”
While Mr. Anderson never quite lived up to those high expectations, he quietly made a good name for himself. In his book about the making of The Dam Busters for the British Film Institute, John Ramsden notes that, by the early 1950s, Mr. Anderson was considered “the best assistant director around,” with a reputation for working well with difficult people.
He made a half-dozen more minor films, including the first cinematic treatment of George Orwell’s 1984, before he was hired for The Dam Busters, though he was still considered inexperienced for such a complex and important project. He had to persuade Richard Todd, who was already attached to the film, so he charmed the actor during a dinner, sharing his vision of the movie.
A year later, Mr. Anderson was tapped to direct Around the World in 80 Days, the brain-child of Broadway impresario Mike Todd, who was about to become Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband. The original director of the film, John Farrow, had been fired on the second day of shooting. According to Art Cohn’s biography of Mr. Todd, “Mike decided a young, intelligent director of good taste and absolutely no Hollywood experience would be best. He chose Michael Anderson, who had been earning 60 pound a week.”
A comic adaptation of the classic Jules Verne novel, it involved 112 locations in 13 countries and 140 sets, with a cast of more than 68,000 people and almost 8,000 animals, with 44 cameos including Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich and Buster Keaton, all shot in Mr. Todd’s wide-screen format, Todd AO. Not surprisingly, the production kept running out of money. Mr. Anderson once recalled how Mr. Todd insisted he keep shooting long past the usual quitting time to avoid insurrection among unpaid employees.
‘It’s getting too dark,″ the director complained. Mr. Todd shouted back, ″Keep shooting until you see the white car with the black driver and the red bag. That’s the payroll.’’
Around the World was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including one for best director, and won five, including best picture. It opened the door to more international productions for Mr. Anderson.
He turned down a chance to direct the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, but had a second chance at the spy genre with The Quiller Memorandum, written by Harold Pinter, starring George Segal as an American spy fighting a revivified Nazi party in Berlin in 1960. This time he used his charm to convince Alec Guinness, then a highly in-demand star, to play a British spy. Mr. Guinness agreed to meet for lunch on condition that they not speak about the script. At the end of another lunch, and a dinner, Mr. Guinness finally signalled that he was ready for the part by pulling out “a little wallet full of moustaches,” saying ’I could play it like a Yorkshireman. I could play it like a military gentleman. I could play it like an English squire. … Now which one would you like?”
I’ve never really gone out of my way to cultivate recognition perhaps in the way I should. Maybe I should have made a lot more noise in the early days.— Michael Anderson in The Globe and Mail in 1986
In 1976, Mr. Anderson made Logan’s Run, one of the most complex and expensive pictures that the fading MGM studio had made in many years, involving nine sound stages, new lenses and the first use of Dolby 70mm sound. The film, which won an Oscar for its special effects and earned a profit, is generally written off as campy but maintains a cult following. Mr. Anderson’s 1977 horror disaster film Orca, starring Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling and Bo Derek, has a similar reputation.
Mr. Anderson relocated to Canada in 1980 with his third wife, the Canadian-born Ms. Ellis, which was, he later said, “the best move I ever made. There’s so much talent; it’s exciting, clean, young, fresh and it’s been very good to me.” Mr. Anderson quickly established himself as a well-liked member of the fledgling Canadian industry. In 2005, he was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Directors Guild of Canada.
Mr. Anderson directed a number of small-budget movies, including the Canuck horror special Bells (killer dial tones) with Richard Chamberlain, and a number of television movies and mini-series. These included the television adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, in which his step-daughter Ms. Holden played her first role. While visiting her stepfather on set, she was asked to fill in as Rock Hudson’s daughter when the actress originally cast for the role failed to show up.
Among Mr. Anderson’s Canadian productions of note was the 1986 four-hour television movie The Sword of Gideon, based on George Jonas’s book Vengeance, about Mossad agents hunting down and killing the perpetrators of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. His last film was the 1999 children’s movie The New Adventures of Pinocchio.
Though he was not Catholic, Mr. Anderson had a penchant for movies about popes, including the 1968 film The Shoes of the Fisherman, starring Anthony Quinn as the first Eastern European pope, challenged with the threat of nuclear war. Mr. Anderson also made the 1972 feature Pope Joan, starring Liv Ullmann as a medieval female pope.
In the the 1980s, an Italian producer came up with the idea of turning John Paul II’s play The Jeweller’s Shop into a feature film. The Pope was a fan of The Shoes of the Fisherman, so Mr. Anderson was asked to direct. After the 1988 film was screened at the Vatican, the pope gave Mr. Anderson and his wife commemorative rosaries. The director called it “the crowning moment in my career.”
For the TV movie Rugged Gold, with Jill Eikenberry and Graham Greene, the veteran Canadian actor Art Hindle was contracted as lead actor and, as a precaution, as back-up director to the septuagenarian director.
However, “Michael was the most energetic person on the set,” Mr. Hindle said. When the actor asked if he could take his picture with the director, Mr. Anderson said yes, but only if he could have a copy. “As if I was as important as some of the great actors and names he had worked with in his career. It made this B-actor very proud and we remained lifelong friends,” Mr. Hindle said.
Mr. Anderson, who died of heart failure on April 25, leaves his wife, Adrianne Ellis; son, Michael Anderson, Jr.; stepchildren, Ms. Holden, Christopher Holden and Emilie Zeug.
“He was so in love with my mother, Ms. Holden says, “It was like something out of the movies.”