On Friday Hollywood lost a great man, a true friend and a link to its golden glory days. A.C. Lyles, also known as Mr. Paramount, died.
A.C., who was born Andrew Craddock Lyles Jr. in Jacksonville, Florida in 1918, got his first job at the studio he loved most, Paramount – which still stands behind its iconic gates on Melrose in Hollywood – when he was 18.
He stayed there for some 75 years. He worked his way up from office boy to mail room to producer to Paramount’s longtime “Ambassador of Good Will.”
Even into his 90s, A.C. came into his famous office (which is in the building named after him, the A.C. Lyles building) every week to greet new friends and old to his beloved studio.
The only time during that span when he was away from Hollywood was when his best friend, Ronald Reagan, was elected President in 1980. A.C. went to Washington with “Ronnie,” and served as one of his closest and most trusted advisers during the eight years of his presidency.
Reagan but was one of his famous friends. In his office was a wall of fame of legends that were his pals, including James Cagney, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Charlton Heston, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, John Travolta and many others.
I was privileged to meet and get to know A.C. when I wrote a chapter on him for my book Hollywood Remembered. From that day on I was among his lucky friends, seeing him on the old lot periodically over the years. Just a few months ago I was honored to be included among guests at his 95th birthday party, held at Musso & Frank Grill, attended by such luminaries as Mickey Rooney, Jane Withers, James Pappas, Anne Sothern, Tia Kanavos and Buzz Aldrin.
His love of movies began back when he was a kid, and Hollywood was – as it is for many – a distant dream.
“When I was ten, I wanted to make movies,” he said. “I never wanted to be in movies. I just wanted to make movies.”
When he saw the silent classic Wings, the first picture to win the Best Picture Oscar, he noticed the words: “Adolph Zukor presents.” He knew Zukor held the keys to the kingdom, and he focused all his dreams on Paramount and its leader.
“When I was a kid I fell in love with that famous Paramount logo with the mountain and the sky and the 22 stars. That is the closest thing I had to Hollywood, and I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to be part of that mountain, those stars.”
To get there, he first he got a job at the Paramount Theater in Jacksonville, back in the days when studios owned their own theaters, as a uniformed pageboy. Diligently he worked in this role for four years until the fateful day that Zukor himself came to Jacksonville. A.C. told him he had one dream: to come to Hollywood and work at Paramount. Zukor told him he was just a kid, but that when he finished high school, he would hire him.
A.C. was wise enough to know that Zukor was perhaps just being kind, and made the same offer to a lot of kids. But it was a connection he would not abandon. He started writing Zukor a letter every week, primarily to remind him of their agreement.
“I wrote him every Sunday for four years,” he said. “He didn’t write back – but it didn’t matter. I never lost confidence or courage.” When Gary Cooper came to Jacksonville, A.C. met him and spoke of his Zukor mission. Cooper picked up paper and wrote a quick letter to his boss: “I’m looking forward to seeing this kid on the lot.”
When A.C. received a letter from Zukor’s secretary Sidney Brecker, saying his letters were all received but needn’t be weekly, he didn’t discontinue his regular Zukor mailing, but also began writing his secretary every Sunday.
The day after he graduated high school, he didn’t hesitate for a moment, and got his ticket west:
“I was in a day coach headed for Hollywood, where you sit up – probably four days and nights. I had $48 in cash that I had saved up, and two loaves of bread, and two jars of peanut butter and a sack of apples.”
When he got off the train downtown at Union Station, he took the streetcar straight to Paramount. “I told them at the gate to tell Mr. Zukor I was here. And I’ve been here ever since.”
He was happy to discover the reality of Hollywood was as thrilling as his dream of the place.
“My first impression of Hollywood,” he said, “was the Paramount gate. It was my first sign of anything Hollywood, the gates I still pass and see every day. It’s the gate made famous in Sunset Boulevard, with Billy Wilder directing and Gloria Swanson in the lead and Erich Von Stroheim as the chauffeur, and she comes up to the gate in a fancy car to see Cecil B. DeMille. That gate is one of the most famous landmarks in town.”
His first job was as Zukor’s office boy, for which he was paid $15 a week. He put as much of it away as he could each week, until he could afford to invite his mother to move out and live with him. Soon he was earning $60 a month.
“We got a little apartment close to the studio that was $29 a month, so that left us $31.” Though that was only a dollar a day to live on, he said it was sufficient. “We did quite well by it,” he remembered.
From Zukor’s office he worked next for DeMille, who he remembered with great admiration. “He was the king,” A.C. said. “He knew movies. His name was one of the first to be above the title. He was a very exacting person. He knew what he wanted and you couldn’t con him. He knew the business. He made the business.”
Soon he was promoted to the publicity department, where he worked for several years, and became friendly with all the stars. “I got to know them all,” he recalled, “Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour, Claudette Colbert. And more important, they got to know me.”
he kept ascending the ranks, to assistant producer to full-fledged producer to heading
his own film company within Paramount, A.C. Lyles Productions, for which he
made a series of Westerns, including Young
Fury and Waco. His debut as a producer on the only feature that his pal Cagney directed, Short Cut to Hell .
He remembered Zukor, who many people disliked, with much affection. “Adolph Zukor was one of the true giants of the movie business. He was a rather small in stature man. He had this accent, and one little cauliflower ear from trying to be a boxer. He was very energetic and the most optimistic man I have ever known.
“He also had a great ability to recognize talent. He saw Mae West do one small role in a picture and [snaps fingers] he made her a star. Same thing with Valentino and Mary Pickford. Also Gary Cooper and Bob Hope. He had that magic touch.”
Zukor lived, remarkably, all the way to 103. A.C. held a birthday party for him every year, and proudly showed off a photo of him cutting Zukor’s cake for his 98th birthday. “There I am, once his office boy, now a producer on the lot.”
When his good pal Ronald Reagan became president of the Screen Actor’s Guild, A.C. recognized his political potential, combined with his good looks and easy charisma, and encouraged him to pursue politics. From Governor of California and ultimately to the White House, A.C. stood next to him, always ready to advise and empower his friend to bravely do what needed to be done. “He was a beautiful man,” said A.C. tearfully of Reagan. “I miss him every day.”
Throughout the years, when he stopped actively producing, he slipped into the role of elder statesman, and could always be called on to give a tour of the lot, and point out where the magic – and the history – was made. He loved Hollywood to his last days as much as he did when he was a kid in Florida, thousands of miles away, entranced and enthralled by this magic medium of movies, and the Hollywood factory from which they came.
“I can’t tell you how to get into this business,” he said. “I can’t tell you how to stay in this business. But I’ve been in this business since I was ten years old and with one studio almost 71 years. There are hundreds of thousands of people al over the world trying to get here. This is a mecca for motion picture business and television. People all over the world are wanting to walk through those gates that I am looking at outside my window. They want to come here and be a part of this studio, a part of the motion picture industry.
“Hollywood has a whole different appeal to people than Los Angeles. Someone once said Hollywood is a state of mind. I think that is true.”