Alan Ladd Jr. was born into show business, as a certain percentage of those who work in the film industry are. They use their familial connections to work their way into and maybe up the corporate ladder or acting world, but most people know whether or not these second- or third-generation folks actually have a scrap of talent or integrity, and their reputation follows them accordingly. But Alan Ladd Jr. (called Laddie by everyone) didn’t really follow in his father’s footstep at all. The elder Ladd was an acting legend (Shane, This Gun’s for Hire), and when he divorced his first wife and remarried, the kids from his first marriage basically ceased to exist in his life story. Directed by Ladd Jr.’s daughter, Amanda Ladd-Jones, Laddie: The Man Behind The Movies began as a private love letter to her father, but it became a sizable slice of Hollywood history thanks to her father’s uncanny ability to trust the artists working for him and spotting a good idea when no one else did.
As a producer and one-time studio head at 20th Century Fox, Ladd is probably best known for being the fan that not only gave the green light to Star Wars but fought for it to have a wide release when no other board member at Fox believed in it. Before being a producer, Laddie was an agent to the likes of Judy Garland (in her more chaotic years, “she tried to kill herself in front of me a couple of times”), Warren Beatty (“a pain in the ass”), Peter Sellers (“crazy”), Robert Redford, Joan Collins, Natalie Wood, Sydney Pollack, and Richard Donner, among others. Although he wasn’t getting movies made in that role, he was building relationships and learning how to deal with temperamental artists—a skill that would come in handy for the rest of his career. There are stories of how soft spoken Ladd was (and still is at age 83) and how laid back he could be, even when he was attempting to express his appreciation for an idea that was brought to him. Instead of simply saying “Yes” to something, he would respond “I don’t have a problem with that,” which many didn’t know quite how to take.
But it’s his list of credits as a producer that is impressive and immense. In addition to Star Wars, Ladd green-lit such works as Blade Runner, Alien, Thelma & Louise (he and Ridley Scott were great friends), Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs, Silent Movie (ditto with Mel Brooks), The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Omen (the first studio film to be released across the country on the same day), Silver Streak, All That Jazz, Norma Rae, Breaking Away, 9 to 5, Chariots of Fire, The Right Stuff, Police Academy, Once Upon a Time in America, Body Heat, Star 80, Night Shift, Moonstruck, A Fish Called Wanda, Rush, Rocky V, The Brady Bunch, and Gone Baby Gone. And the stories of the small decisions Ladd made in the name of bettering or protecting these films are endless—changing the male lead of Alien (Ripley) to a female character, making certain Ridley Scott wasn’t convinced to change the ending of Thelma & Louise, trusting a junior executive to book Rocky Horror as a midnight movie, and how he kept Star Wars alive despite intense pressure—and for film lovers, these stories are a treasure trove of information, all of which is corroborated by the filmmakers and actors involved.
Ladd moved from Fox to his own production company (The Ladd Company) to MGM to be a studio head once again, then back to The Ladd Company, where he made Braveheart with Mel Gibson and picked up a Best Picture Oscar for the effort. Since Ladd isn’t one for boasting, there are plenty of others to do it for him, including Brooks, Gibson, Scott, Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman, Ron Howard, George Lucas, Sigourney Weaver, as well as many of the executives he worked with, including a great many women who sing his praises as being the unsung hero of Hollywood for elevating women in studio jobs when no other studio would—many of whom are still working in top-level positions.
I’m admittedly a sucker for films like this, that shed some light on portions of the filmmaking process we don’t often get to see, and Ladd’s list of accomplishments is seemingly never-ending. But it’s rare to see a biography like this about someone who appears to be a genuinely good person, who led a scandal-free life (so rare for a movie mogul) and seems universally beloved by his peers. As easy as it might be to attribute this glowing portrait to the filmmaker/daughter, one of the places that Ladd feels he let people down was his wife of 20-plus years and their kids, who lived largely fatherless while Ladd built up his business and supervised dozens of projects per year. Ladd-Jones makes the point that it wasn’t until her early 20s, when she was old enough to visit her father on movie sets, that she began to understand and appreciate his work, and their bond became much closer and remains so today. It’s a surprisingly moving realization, even if it does too easily forgive absentee parenting.
Laddie is a fantastic trip through one of the most vital, dynamic and versatile times in the movie business—a transition from works by auteurs to blockbusters made by those who grew up watching the auteurs but saw the potential in mass-appeal productions. We get the sense there are few people in the industry quite like Alan Ladd Jr., and that feels like a damn shame.
The film is now available to rent and buy digitally.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!