Sunday, February 8, 2009

A.C. Lyles - "Mr. Paramount"

For anyone looking to get into business in Hollywood A.C. Lyles, the longtime Paramount Pictures producer has the perfect advice: "obsession, obsession, obsession." Lyles, who started working for Paramount over 80 years ago and still shows up for work today should know what works.
When Lyles was just 10 years old he saw the Paramount film Wings, which was the first picture to win the Oscar for Best Picture, at a Paramount owned movie theatre in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. Lyles fell in love with the picture and knew that he wanted to go to work for the people that made it so he went to the theatre manager, asked for a job, and got a position distributing handbills.
Four years later Paramount founder Adolph Zukor would make a visit to the Jacksonville theatre and Lyles didn't hesitate to introduce himself. Zukor told Lyles, who was interested in going to Hollywood to work at the studio, to finish high school first. After their brief meeting Lyles began writing Zukor every week. "My whole life was writing Mr. Zukor every Sunday. I was quite obsessed," Lyles said.
On another occasion Lyles was lucky enough to meet actor Gary Cooper who was in Jacksonville on his way to Miami. Lyles introduced himself to Cooper and explained how he had been writing Zukor. Cooper wrote Lyles a note and told him to include it in his next letter to Zukor. When Zukor's secretary found the note she wrote back to Lyles and then Lyles started writing letters to her too.
Taking Zukor's advice, Lyles graduated from high school then boarded a train going cross country to Hollywood with just $28 and a sack of apples, peanut butter, and bread. When Lyles arrived in Hollywood Zukor gave him a position as an office boy earning $15 a week. Lyles quickly made friends on the Paramount Studios lot, including a young Bing Crosby, Cooper, and James Cagney's sister. Cagney's sister would introduce Lyles to her brother and they would then become friends, but that was just the start. Cagney would introduce Lyles to who would soon become one of his best friends. "There's a young fellow in town I want you to meet. You'll be inseparable," Lyles recalled. The young fellow turned out to be Ronald Reagan!
At the age of 19 Lyles would become a publicity director. By the 1950s & 1960s he was producing films, especially westerns. Most recently he worked as a consultant on the tv show Deadwood but much of his time is spent playing ambassador for Paramount.
I was fortunate enough to meet A.C. Lyles several times while I was a Page at the Paramount Studios. I remember being invited into his office which is on the side of the Paramount Studios lot that used to be RKO. When you go into Lyles office there are framed photographs everywhere. Most of them are pictures of Lyles with all the stars he has known over the years: Elvis, Clint Eastwood, James Cagney, Shirley Temple, and of course Ronald Reagan.
The first time I went to Lyle's office he told me to take a seat on the couch. He was sitting behind his desk (which used to belong to Fred Astaire!) and asked me to blow on the door of his office. The door suddenly slammed shut. No, Lyles doesn't know magic - he has a control button behind his desk to close the door, but it was a funny little gimmick. Lyles then asked if I would like to see a video? I certainly did and he played a video for me of Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush congratulating Lyles on his career at Paramount. The most interesting part was when Reagan mentions during his segment that it was Lyles that first predicted that he would be president.
Lyles shared many stories and advice with me during the few times that we would meet. Much of the advice was that which was passed down to him from Adolph Zukor. Lyles told me, "Zukor used to say to me, to make it in this town you got to dress British, speak Yiddish." Every day that I saw Lyles at work he was finely dressed in a tailored suit that he picked up at Saville Row. He was the best dressed man at Paramount. Lyles also shared another nugget of wisdom that he picked up from Zukor and that was to, "get a Cadillac, join the Bel Air country club, and get a home in Beverly Hills." I told Lyles I would get right on that.
In the picture above you can see Lyles sitting at the desk in his office. If you look closely you can see that he's wearing cuff links. Those used to belong to Ronald Reagan and have the presidential seal.
Another interesting about Lyle is that he still drives himself to work each day in an old 1950s Ford Thunderbird. When he's not driving the old Thunderbird he's driving one of the new Thunderbirds that Ford came out with a few years ago designed to look like the classic Thunderbird. I'm told that Ford gave them the car for his loyalty to the Thunderbird car. I can't say for sure if that is true or not.
If you ever are in Hollywood and take a tour of the Paramount Studios be on the look out for Lyles. He loves guests and sharing his many stories. Don't hesitate to say hello.
Here's a great video of A.C. Lyles talking about western star John Wayne and western director John Ford:

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