Lillian Michelson

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Lillian Michelson (born June 21, 1928) is an American film scholar and research librarian.



Born in an abusive family, Michelson moved through multiple orphanages in Miami during her childhood. She noted in interviews that it was due to this that she was not able to have a Jewish upbringing and educational background. While originally planning on attending college, she dropped out in her first year to focus on her family.[1]


By 1961 when her children had reached schooling age, Michelson started a career in the field of film research, alongside spending time as a volunteer in the film library at the studio with which she was affiliated that was run by Samuel Goldwyn. This led to her overseeing what would eventually be renamed the Michelson Cinema Research Library, which was an important resource for people involved in filmmaking. Through this library, she performed research for numerous award-winning films, with her favorite being Fiddler On The Roof, thanks to it allowing her to focus on researching Jewish history and her own ethnic background.[1][2] Some of her research endeavors required difficult and sometimes dangerous interactions to find the material she sought, with two of the most famous anecdotes involving asking elderly Jewish women what women's underwear looked like in the 1890s for Fiddler and interviewing drug lords, DEA agents, and obtaining private photos from CIA databases in order to have accurate material for the film Scarface.[3]

Officially acquiring the reference library in 1969 from the head librarian Lelia Alexander due to her retirement, Michelson had to borrow $20,000 "against her husband Harold’s life insurance policy" in order to pay for the purchase. However, with the studio having sold the library, Michelson was given only 30 days to move the reference materials outside of the studio location and she had difficulty in finding any other studios willing to accept her transfer. Just before the deadline was up, Michelson was able to make a contract with the American Film Institute for the reference library to be housed in their new Greystone Mansion location. The only room in the building that was available for her and her research materials was the old laundry room, where the library remained for ten years. Evicted in 1979, she made a new deal with the Hollywood Group to be housed in the Pantages Theatre. Not long after, in May 1980, Michelson was called by Francis Coppola and asked to join the newly formed Zoetrope Studios, which she moved to in June of that year.[4]

Due to financial troubles at the studio, however, especially after the overinvestment into and bomb of One from the Heart, Michelson would once again be let go in June 1986.[5] These frequent moves of the reference library would eventually end more permanently at DreamWorks Pictures in the mid 1990s. This would be the library's resting place until the 2010s when Michelson retired, after having put the library into disuse for nearly a decade, and efforts were made to have it be transferred to a new location that could once again use the material.[6] A Michelson Library Fund was established by The Film Collaborative non-profit in order to raise funds to sustain the library resources.[7] In December 2020, it was announced that the library would be donated to the Internet Archive.[8][9]

Personal life[edit]

Lillian was married to production designer Harold Michelson after he returned from being drafted into WWII. They were forced to elope due to disapproval from Harold's family. They remained together until his death in 2007 and had three children. A documentary about their marriage and 60 years of partnership was released on April 28, 2015, titled Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story. Michelson currently lives in the retirement community set up by the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Los Angeles.[1]

Harold and Lillian's contributions to the film industry would see them honored in various ways, including as major named references in films, with the characters of King Harold and Queen Lillian in Shrek 2 being homages to them.[10] In 2017, they were given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for their contributions, making them the first behind-the-scenes non-actors to receive the award.[11]


  1. ^ a b c Ghert-Zand, Renee (April 17, 2017). "The ordinary Jewish couple that made 60 years of movie magic". The Times of Israel. Retrieved February 8, 2021.
  2. ^ Mcnamara, Mary (August 14, 2020). "Lillian Michelson built Hollywood's most famous research library. Can someone give it a home?". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 8, 2021.
  3. ^ Tobias, Scott (April 27, 2017). "A Behind-The-Scenes Couple Get Star Treatment In 'Harold And Lillian'". NPR. Retrieved February 8, 2021.
  4. ^ Honeycutt, Kirk (March 1, 1981). "Research That Makes Moves 'Real'". New York Times. Retrieved February 8, 2021.
  5. ^ Mathews, Jack (June 11, 1986). "Movie Library Is At End Of Line". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 8, 2021.
  6. ^ Hanamura, Wendy (December 15, 2020). "After Searching for a Decade, Legendary Hollywood Research Library Finds a New Home". Internet Archive Blogs. Internet Archive. Retrieved February 8, 2021.
  7. ^ "The Michelson Library Fund". The Collaborative. The Film Collaborative. 2020. Retrieved February 8, 2021.
  8. ^ Hilton, Emily (December 23, 2020). "Hollywood Archivist Lillian Michelson Donates Library to the Internet Archive". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved February 8, 2021.
  9. ^ Mcnamara, Mary (January 28, 2021). "Lillian Michelson and her one-of-a-kind film library get a digital Hollywood ending". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 8, 2021.
  10. ^ Shoji, Kaori (May 25, 2017). "Hollywood's love storyboard". The Japan Times. Retrieved February 8, 2021.
  11. ^ "The Academy Honors Harold and Lillian Michelson, and Celebrates the Launch of The Actors Society Online". American Academy of Dramatic Arts. January 19, 2017. Retrieved February 8, 2021.

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