Norbert Auerbach - From Barrandov to Hollywood

Norbert Auerbach

Norbert Auerbach moved here from Vienna at the age of two and grew up in Prague in the 1920s and '30s, the son of a very successful motion picture producer. Indeed, as a boy he lived at Barrandov, home of the Czech Republic's famous film studios. Mr Auerbach later moved to the USA, where he had an extremely successful career in Hollywood, including a spell as president of United Artists. In this special programme, Norbert Auerbach, now 84, looks back on a long and colourful life and career.

He had a hand in such hits as the James Bond series, the Beatles first movie A Hard Day's Night and The Pink Panther, to name but a few. He also worked closely with many famous stars and directors, and even collaborated with US president Ronald Reagan.

Mr Auerbach, who is 84, now lives in Prague once again. His glittering career has been captured in a recently published Czech-language book entitled Z Barrandova do Hollywoodu, From Barrandov to Hollywood. A poster for it was on his desk when I spoke to Norbert Auerbach recently in his Prague centre office.

"Both my father and mother were technically born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, my father in the part which is now Poland and my mother in the part that is now Bohemia - the Czech Republic.

"When the family first moved from Vienna we lived in the Jewish section of town and later moved to the Koruna [Palace] building on Wenceslas Square. In 1930 when the Barrandov studios were starting to be built, Dad at the same time built a studio on Barrandov hill. And in 1931 we moved to that particular villa."

Did you know a lot of the Czech stars of those days? People like Voskovec and Werich, who our listeners would know?

"I knew and was aware as a child that these were...that there Voskovec and Werich, and Luba Hermanova and Lida Barova and people of that particular type...They were often guests at the house, or I met them when I visited the studio. But they were just ordinary people...who basically worked for my father."

Many people look back at that period in Czechoslovak history, the First Republic, as a kind of golden era. Was that how you found it? Or were you simply a kid growing up?

Barrandov Studios
"I was 14 years old when we left, so the first 14 years...after we moved to the Barrandov villa we did live in the lap of luxury, with a fully staffed - I would say almost overstaffed - house. Two chauffeurs and a cook and a cook's helper, gardeners.

"We didn't realise this was unusual and we really thought that this was normal and that everybody lived like that. What, you don't have a chauffeur? Who are you - what's wrong with your parents (laughs)?!

"And the memory of the life that I have is, yes, that it was very westernised, they were very western-oriented, lots of cultural activities, even for us children...a totally westernised country which was prosperous, politically stable. But I didn't realise that as a child. I realised that later on."

Your family moved to the States in the mid to late 1930s?

"No. Dad and one of my sisters who wanted to go to university in America moved to the States in 1936. My father wanted to leave Europe - Europe was too small a playing field for him.

"My mother, my other sister and myself were supposed to follow. But my mother was in no particular rush to move to this country of cowboys and Indians. And/or move away from the extremely luxurious life that she was leading...

"I eventually left for France two weeks before the Germans took over Czechoslovakia. My mother and my sister left on the day that the Germans came in.

"We then were waiting in Paris for our visas. Eventually, as the war was going on, Dad didn't trust the whole situation and wanted to bring the family to safety and said he was taking us to Brazil, where we would wait for the visas.

"We were first held up in Bordeaux because the ships were not going as they were supposed to...Eventually when we were about two hours out of Bordeaux harbour on a Brazilian ship we heard over the radio that the French had given up. So once again by the skin of our teeth.

"We eventually arrived in Brazil and from Brazil I went with Dad to the States in 1940. Mother and my other sister followed somewhat later."

What were your first impressions of the US and how long did it take you to start to feel at home there?

"I was naturally somewhat overwhelmed by the first look at New York with the skyscrapers, I guess like everybody else, and seeing the Statue of Liberty as we sailed into the harbour.

"But very briefly after we arrived in the States I went off to a prep school in Maryland. I was really in a rural part of America, and was very much surprised by the huge difference between high school, gymnazium, in Europe and the atmosphere in an American prep school. It was totally, totally different, and I liked it very much.

"I was also doing my very best to become Americanised as quickly as possible. I was very active in sports, which helped very much..."

And I guess a couple of years later you joined the US Army?

"I went into the army relatively shortly after Pearl Harbour...First I graduated from high school and started at university at studies were interrupted by my joining the army - I think it was early in '42.

"By that time I was 18, 19, war seemed to be some kind of jolly adventure which a young man should not miss. But to the contrary of many Americans, especially many Americans of my age, less sophisticated, I knew that there were terrible things happening in Europe and that we were really fighting against shall we say evil, to put it simply."

After the war you went back to the States and began your long career in film. Given your father's business, your father's work, was that something you felt destined to do?

"Not at all. I never thought of going in to the motion picture business. As a matter of fact when I left the army I first finished my studies and got a Masters in business administration and a BA in soil science. The idea was that I would go to Israel and manage orange plantations which my father owned there.

"I didn't particularly want to go to what was at that time Palestine, where life was still primitive. Being lost and not really knowing what to day Dad came home and said, why don't you start on a production project? He happened to be financing a particular production.

"So I started there as a gofer, without any particular privileges because my dad was part of the financing group. On the contrary, much more was expected of me.

"I worked my way up to first assistant director but production never appealed to me...I then went into work in a lab, in a distribution company - in each particular case at that time these first jobs were in companies in which Dad had an interest.

"Eventually I wanted to sort of escape my father's influence. He basically wanted me to stay and work with him, which I didn't want. That's when I joined Columbia pictures. Again as a messenger boy - but an experienced messenger boy (laughs).

"Then came the various companies, the various promotions, I don't think that we have time to go into all of them, until I ended up as president of United Artists. After United Artists I was still president of United Artists International, which was a company working out of London."

Before you reached the top in Hollywood you spent many years as a film executive in Europe and worked with many of the great starts of the day, people like Jean Paul Belmondo, Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot. I read in Z Barrandova do Hollywoodu that you played a part in the discovery of Bardot - tell us a bit about that, please.

"The truth is that a very well-known French producer came to us and had a project called And God Created Woman - he had a young girl by the name of Brigitte Bardot who would star in the picture. Well, we had never heard of her but we did take a look and certainly saw something in her that was very attractive and very special.

"But we decided that this was not enough, that we needed the support of some well known name, beside Brigitte. We told the producer to bring the Curd Jurgens, who was a well known German actor at that time, and we will finance your film.

"And that really was how And God Created Woman came about. It discovered Brigitte and St Tropez. Probably the discovery of St Tropez was more important than the discovery of Bardot, who was a sexy little kitten but a terrible actress!"

You also were involved with the Beatles on their first film A Hard Day's Night.

'A Hard Day's Night'
"The Beatles at the time were very little known, if at all, outside of England. It was really the office in London which came with the idea of making a film with the Beatles - it was a very reasonably priced project.

"I personally wanted to see how it work on the continent, so I decided to travel with the Beatles to Germany, France and Italy. While they obviously were not established by the one picture, when it was released it became a success.

"My personal communications with the Beatles were extremely difficult because they spoke with this Liverpudlian accent. They were extremely shy...everything was new to them, it was really like taking care of four children."

By that time the James Bond series had already started and you played a role in the genesis of James Bond too, I believe.

"Yeah. As I think I say in the book, a victory always has many fathers and defeat has no mother.

"We had regular production meetings in London, because United Artists was very active in producing films in Europe, in Italy, in Germany, in France, in England. We were not just taking the American product.

"At that particular production meeting question a very banal question was asked of me - what product would I like to have? And I said, well I feel that for my countries action pictures with some humour are very, very attractive, because they're easy to digest for the various nations where we do business.

"As an example I cited the Ian Fleming book Dr. No which I was just reading. And that gave birth to the fact that the rights to all the Fleming books were acquired jointly by UA, and at that time two producers, Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli.

"That's how the Bond series started. Nobody anticipated at that particular time that it will be what it has become."

I also read that the director of the first Bond film Dr. No took it seriously, and was sad that people laughed at the film.

"Terence Young was one of these elegant Englishmen, I would call him - Saville Row suits, the best wines, always with beautiful ladies. He was as English as could be, or as one imagines an English gentleman to be.

"When we had the first screening in London I came a little late and I was standing in the back of the screening room, because there was no more room to sit, next to Terence. And when the lights came on he was crying. I said, Terence, what's the matter? This is a lovely film, everybody enjoyed it.

"And he simply said, they laughed. The fact is, being what he was he took the character of Bond terribly seriously, to him it was an absolutely real character. He did not intend to film it as a parody, which it was, and which became more and more pronounced as time went on."

And of course the latest Bond film was partly filmed here in the Czech Republic. Have you seen the new Bond?

Coming soon to a theatre near you
"We're talking about Casino Royale, which is a remake. I remember when they were shooting Casino Royale in Paris, the first one..."

With David Niven?

"With David Niven and Peter Sellers. I have seen the new film, I've spoken to the producers who today are Barbara Broccoli, the daughter of Cubby Broccoli, and Michael Wilson, a step-son of Mr Broccoli's. They are the principal producers and half owners of the rights, jointly with UA.

"I think they did a very, very clever thing. Because this Bond is more serious than the others. It goes with the times, it goes with the subject of terrorism. If you have seen it you will agree with just about everybody else that we are back [with Daniel Craig] to a Sean Connery type, in other words a real actor, which the others - Lazenby, Moore etc, etc - were not.

"As I say I was very much in touch with the producers here. I'm glad they came here, they were extremely satisfied and expressed the desire to be able to come back with the next one, if that is at all possible."

Getting back to your own career in Hollywood, when you became president of United Artists I guess many doors opened to you. I know you were also involved in some way with President Ronald Reagan in those days.

"For a number of years I was already senior vice president, which was really quite a high position in the industry. So the people I met as president were really not that much different, perhaps with the exception of a few very important bankers, who started keeping in contact with me.

"I had met Reagan as an actor, some years previously. But then I met Reagan principally because one of my best friends was married to the widow of Cary Grant. And the Grants were contemporaries of the Reagans and were very, very close friends.

"When Reagan was president he came one time to California, where I was at that time working. My friend invited me and I met the Reagans on a totally informal basis.

"Eventually I did this rather, I would say, unimportant job of working for the United States Information Office, putting together some shows, which were supposed to travel around the world.

"I was sort of a watchdog to see that as many of Reagan's films as possible were shown in that particular show - in spite of the fact that they were certainly not the best films in the world."

During all these years we're talking about, did you maintain many contacts with Czechoslovakia or Prague?

"Not really. Of course during the war there was no contact. I came here still as a soldier at the end of the war and was able to establish contact with what was my best friend in my youth. I then maintained contact with him.

"He came to visit me in Paris, in London, in the States. I came to communist Czechoslovakia a number of times on business, or sometimes just on a short private visit. But he was really the only one from my very young days that I had contact with."

Is it the case that you were here at the time of the Velvet Revolution?

"Yes, I came in the summer of '89 to sit with this friend of mine that I mentioned, who was dying of cancer. I was doing these magic things that one had to do at that particular time, looking for special medicine, bringing a healer from Brazil...and visiting doctors. Basically holding the hand of a dying man.

"In November of that year the Velvet Revolution surprised us all. In March of '90 my friend died. By that time I had moved away from the States due to a very nasty divorce.

"I decided to stay here and see whether with my knowledge of the world I could be helpful in the process of transforming this country from communism. Eventually my friend's widow became my wife."