Alan Ladd Jr., who as a producer and studio executive was a guiding hand behind scores of successful films, none bigger than “Star Wars,” which he championed when its young director, George Lucas, was having trouble getting it made, died on Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 84.
Kathie Berlin, who worked with him for years at his production company and at MGM, said the cause was kidney failure.
Mr. Ladd was vice president for creative affairs at 20th Century Fox in 1973 when Mr. Lucas’s agent, Jeff Berg, began talking with him about Mr. Lucas’s still-evolving concept for what became “Star Wars.” Mr. Lucas had just made “American Graffiti,” but it had yet to be released — once it was, it would become one of 1973’s biggest movies — and so Mr. Lucas’s idea for a space movie wasn’t getting much respect; United Artists and Universal weren’t interested.
Mr. Ladd, though, was. He knew movies and audiences — his father was an actor who had been in more than 100 films and TV shows — and he understood the appeal of Mr. Lucas’s vision.
“It took me back to the old Saturday matinees,” he told The New York Times in 1977 as “Star Wars,” released a few months earlier, was smashing box-office records. “I used to go crazy over Superman and Flash Gordon. When I heard Universal had passed on it, I thought, ‘They’re crazy!’ So I took an option on it.”
It wasn’t the first time Mr. Ladd had seen potential where others did not. A few years earlier, Mel Brooks was shopping his idea for “Young Frankenstein,” but Columbia balked when he insisted on shooting the movie in black and white. Mr. Brooks then sat down with Mr. Ladd.
“We all hit it off at our first meeting because the first thing Laddie” — Mr. Ladd’s nickname — “said was, ‘You’re absolutely right. It should be made in black and white,’” Mr. Brooks wrote in his book “All About Me! My Remarkable Life in Show Business” (2021).
“I knew right then and there,” Mr. Brooks added, “that I had finally met a studio chief that I could really trust.”
Mr. Brooks went on to make several other movies with Mr. Ladd, including the “Star Wars” parody “Spaceballs” in 1987, when Mr. Ladd was chairman of MGM. By then Mr. Brooks was box-office gold, thanks in part to “Young Frankenstein,” which had earned more than $100 million, and, as he told The Los Angeles Times in 1987, he could have taken “Spaceballs” to just about any major studio.
“But I’ve known Laddie for years,” he said. “And I’m not so wise, so old or so powerful that I can resist a lot of gut-level help all the way down the line — and especially emotional support — which is something Laddie has always provided.”
Mr. Ladd, who at various times held top positions at 20th Century Fox and MGM/UA as well as running the Ladd Company, which he founded in 1979, was known for a relatively laid-back style in a business full of intrusive executives. In a 1999 interview with The New York Times, the director Norman Jewison recalled his experience working with Mr. Ladd on the 1987 hit “Moonstruck,” which won three Oscars.
“I gave him a price of what I thought I could do the film for,” Mr. Jewison said, “and told him I was going to go after Cher to play the lead. No other major stars. And he called me up and said, ‘OK.’ And I never saw him again, until I told him that the film was finished and I wanted him to see it. That doesn’t happen anymore.”
Ms. Berlin said that while Mr. Ladd’s championing of “Star Wars” might be his calling card, he also deserved credit for backing films like “Moonstruck,” “Julia” (1977) and “Thelma and Louise” (1991) that had strong female characters. He is generally credited with suggesting that the lead character in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979), originally written as a man, be changed, giving Sigourney Weaver a chance to create a memorable sci-fi heroine.
“I am always asking, ‘Can this role be more interesting if it’s played by a woman rather than a man?’” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1988.
Alan Walbridge Ladd Jr. was born on Oct. 22, 1937, in Los Angeles to Alan Ladd, best known as the star of the 1953 western “Shane,” and his first wife, Marjorie Jane Harrold.
Alan Jr. studied at the University of Southern California, was called up as an Air Force reservist during the Berlin crisis of the early 1960s and, once released, went to work in the mailroom of the talent agency Creative Management Associates. He soon became an agent, representing, among others, Judy Garland.
In the early 1970s he formed a producing partnership in London with several others and produced his first movies, including “The Nightcomers” (1971), which starred Marlon Brando.
Returning to the United States, he became a vice president at Fox in 1973. In 1976 he became the company’s president. Three years later he announced that he was leaving to form his own company.
Mr. Ladd was a top executive at MGM twice. In 1985 he was brought in to run one of its movie divisions; soon after that he was named president and chief operating officer, and then chairman. He left in 1988 with the company undergoing ownership and organizational changes. He was leading the movie division of Pathé Communications when that company acquired MGM, and in 1991 he became chief executive. He was forced out in 1993 in another ownership change.
Among the movies the Ladd Company had a hand in was “Chariots of Fire” (1981), which won the best-picture Oscar. “Braveheart” (1995), another Ladd Company project, won the same award.
But “Star Wars” was almost certainly Mr. Ladd’s biggest triumph. He was still unsure about whether the film would work when he attended the premiere in San Francisco — until he heard the tidal wave of applause at the end.
“It kept going on; it wasn’t stopping,” he recalled later. “And I just never had experienced that kind of reaction to any movie ever. Finally, when it was over, I had to get up and walk outside because of the tears.”
Mr. Ladd’s marriage to Patricia Beazley ended in divorce, as did his second marriage, to Cindra Pincock. He is survived by three children from his first marriage, Kelliann Ladd, Tracy Ladd and Amanda Ladd Jones; a brother, David; a sister, Carol Lee Veitch; and six grandchildren. A daughter from his second marriage, Chelsea Ladd, died in 2021.