Benny Thau in 1954
December 15, 1898
|Died||July 5, 1983 (aged 84)|
Los Angeles, California, United States
|Known for||MGM Casting Director|
Benny Thau (born Benjamin Thau, 15 December 1898 – 5 July 1983) was an American businessman who became vice-president of the Hollywood film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), a subsidiary of the Loew's theater chain. From 1928 he was in charge of casting, in the business of discovering and developing talented performers. He was known for his quiet and calming influence with often temperamental stars. Towards the end of his career he was head of the studio from 1956 to 1958.
Born to a Jewish family, Thau started his career as a vaudeville booking agent for Loew's. In 1928 he was hired by Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, as casting director. Thau had a pleasant nature and was regarded with affection by many of the workers at MGM, but wielded considerable power. Thau belonged to Mayer's executive team, called "the college of cardinals", along with Eddie Mannix, Lawrence Weingarten and Hunt Stromberg. Thau managed the pool of talent, called by the publicity department "more stars than there are in heaven."
In 1938 Thau, along with other executives, agreed to produce a film version of Erich Maria Remarque's classic novel Three Comrades, but watered down the script to avoid anything that could offend Germany's Nazi government.
George Sidney described Thau as "a very quiet man, a gentle man." He would be brought in to calm down the performers when they got upset. He said, "Benny spoke very quietly. You could almost never quite hear what he said. But he would talk to this one and that one and had the ability to calm things down. A Vanity Fair article by Bob Colacello described Thau in 1949 as a "short, heavyset man with thinning hair", and quoted the biographer Charles Higham as saying "Thau's casting couch was the busiest in Hollywood".
Relationships with the stars
Benny Thau was trusted by the stars. For example, Greta Garbo never had a formal contract with MGM. The director and producer Gottfried Reinhardt recalled that at one time Thau explained to Garbo that if she accepted a sizable salary reduction she would move into a lower tax bracket and receive the same net pay. She understood the logic and agreed to the cut on a handshake. When MGM first approached Rosalind Russell for a screen test in the early 1930s she was not enthusiastic, remembering poor treatment at her audition for Universal. When she met MGM's Benny Thau and Ben Piazza she was surprised, as they were "the soul of understanding."
During her first years at MGM Greer Garson was Thau's mistress. Thau was a strong supporter of Garson, who received an Oscar nomination in 1941 for Blossoms in the Dust. Joan Crawford, a more established star, was angry that she had not received any recognition, and blamed Thau. She left the studio. However, in 1953 she was surprised to get a call from Thau offering her a starring role in Torch Song (1953).
Elizabeth Taylor was given a role by MGM in Lassie Come Home, and was offered a long-term contract at the beginning of 1943. She chose MGM because "the people there had been nicer to her when she went to audition", Taylor recalled. Benny Thau was to remain the "only MGM executive" she fully trusted during subsequent years, because, according to Alexander Walker, "he had, out of kindly habit, made the gesture that showed her she was loved". He played a key role in Taylor's career, managing her contracts and helping her get what she wanted on each of her films. She said she saw Thau as her surrogate father, and went to him "for help and advice". Thau remembered her as a "little dark-haired beauty ... [with] those strange and lovely eyes that gave the face its central focus, oddly powerful in someone so young."
Thau said of Nancy Davis, the future wife of Ronald Reagan, "I always recommended Nancy for parts. She was sweet and appealing – one of the most popular girls on the lot. Thau escorted Nancy Davis, to many events in Hollywood. This caused gossip about the relationship between the two. Kitty Kelley described Thau as "Nancy Davis's boyfriend", saying he paved the way for her Hollywood career, in her 1991 Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography.
In 1956 Thau replaced Dore Schary, who had been studio head at MGM since 1951. Thau took charge of MGM at a point when the studio was in decline. He inherited poorly conceived projects from Schary. Of the 20 films produced in house in 1956–57, 19 lost money, but Thau managed to turn around a loss of almost $500,000 in 1957 into a profit of $5 million the next year. He was studio boss until 1958, when he was replaced by Sol C. Siegel. Jailhouse Rock was Elvis Presley's third film and his first for MGM. The producer, Pandro S. Berman, had his attention centered on another of his productions The Brothers Karamazov. He let Benny Thau, then head of the studio, and Abe Lastfogel, president of the William Morris Agency, decide the cast.
Benny Thau died in Los Angeles in 1983.
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