“It’s a short resumé, 1928 to 2005; Paramount,” says A.C. Lyles, whose current title, “producer,” doesn’t begin to capture his relationship with the little film studio on Melrose.
For 77 years, Lyles has been the quintessential company man, so much so that when Brad Grey took the reins of the company earlier this summer he asked Lyles to introduce him to the troops.
“He’s done well since he’s been here,” Lyles says, noting Grey is the 10th studio chief he’s lived through. “He’s made seven or eight major additions to our talent here for our picture making.”
As a child in Jacksonville, Lyles handed out handbills for Paramount’s Florida Theater, before charming his way up to page. So excited by his new gig, he wrote his boss, Paramount’s founder Adolph Zukor, who eventually visited Florida, where he told the youth to “keep in touch.” Lyles took that to mean writing Zukor every Sunday for the next four years. When Zukor’s secretary told Lyles that letters every two months would be fine, he kept up the weekly letters and added the secretary to his correspondence list.
Lyles’ first trip to Hollywood was, ironically, on assignment for a Jacksonville newspaper to cover a 20th Century Fox star, Shirley Temple, with whom he remains friends to this day. Despite a meeting with Fox’s Darryl Zanuck initiated by Walter Winchell, Lyles went over to the Paramount lot, scoring a mailroom job and, at 19, was tapped to run the studio’s publicity department.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come on the lot getting $100 a week,” Lyles says, referring to actors like William Holden, Susan Hayward and Alan Ladd.
Today, making pictures is a much more difficult process than it was back then, Lyles says.
“We had 140 to 145 actors under contract,” he remembers, “making 55 to 60 features a year, releasing one a week. We had the talent right with us. Now we have to go off the lot for talent.”
Producing films came next, culminating in 1956, when he worked on 10 features in 24 months. On loan to CBS, Lyles produced television’s Rawhide, on whose set he got to know one of the show’s young actors — Clint Eastwood.
“My God, what a career he’s had,” Lyles marvels.
Lyles considered Ronald Reagan and James Cagney his closest friends. Cagney directed a single film in his career, Short Cut to Hell, which he did for no pay, for Lyles, while Reagan named him to a number of presidential committees and asked him to round up Hollywood types to attend White House functions.
His association with the Gipper and his predominantly squeaky clean resumé make his latest assignment something of a surprise. Lyles is a producer on HBO’s gritty, profane Western Deadwood, the brainchild of former NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues writer David Milch.
“I always say I went to the University of Paramount,” he said. “Now I’m in graduate school with David Milch.”
Milch’s detailed research of the period helped sell him on the project and, when Lyles describes the show’s frontier-town milieu, you think he might be talking about Old Hollywood.
“It makes for a great story. The town was the law of the lawless.”
In what is likely a first and last for Hollywood, Lyles is perfectly content being not a director, not a performer, but a producer.
“I never wanted to act,” he said. “Not even a walk-on in the pictures that I made.”
There’s no discussion of retirement, either.
“I don’t know what I’d do,” he says. “I guess I’d come here and wave my friends onto the lot.”