Albert Brenner, Acclaimed Production Designer on ‘The Sunshine Boys,’ ‘The Missouri Breaks’ and ‘Pretty Woman,’ Dies at 96
Albert Brenner, the innovative production designer, art director and five-time Oscar nominee whose work was admired in films from Fail Safe, Bullitt and Point Blank to The Sunshine Boys, The Turning Point and Backdraft, has died. He was 96.
Brenner died Thursday in his sleep at his home in Los Angeles, his family announced.
The Brooklyn native started his career dressing mannequins for window displays and worked on such TV shows as Car 54, Where Are You? before progressing to a much larger canvas — designing the five-acre New York Street backlot for Paramount in Hollywood after the original was destroyed by fire in August 1983.
Across his 50-plus-year career, Brenner collaborated on eight features with director Garry Marshall, seven with Herbert Ross, five with Peter Hyams, three with Sidney Lumet and two with Robert Mulligan. Comedies, sci-fi flicks, Westerns, period pieces — he did them all.
Of his five Oscar nominations for best art direction, three came in a span of four years — for Ross’ The Sunshine Boys (1975), The Turning Point (1977) and California Suite (1978). He also was nominated for Hyams’ 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984) and Marshall’s Beaches (1988).
Ross first hired Brenner for the Hyams-written drama T.R. Baskin (1971) and also used his services on The Goodbye Girl (1977), I Ought to Be in Pictures (1982) and Max Dugan Returns (1983). Five of their movies involved Neil Simon screenplays.
For The Sunshine Boys, Brenner created a circular apartment set for elderly comedian Willy Clark (Walter Matthau) that was crammed with memorabilia from his vaudeville days with Al Lewis (Oscar winner George Burns).
Its ring-shaped design had numerous doorways where the curmudgeonly comedians figuratively go ’round in circles trying to repair their fractured friendship.
“Herbert Ross went with the concept, and I designed the apartment set, which was built in the studio, to the timing of the dialogue,” he said in Beverly Heisner’s 1997 book, Production Design in the Contemporary American Film.
“So that when Matthau and George Burns walk around the apartment during their frequent arguments, the dialogue would end where he wanted it to in the set. I fit the timing of the jokes to the apartment set.”
Brenner’s idea, which enabled unrestricted camera movements, would also be employed for a key dinner sequence in the Lumet thriller The Morning After (1986) and for the interior spacecraft scenes on Hyams’ 2010.
As art director, his design of the secret war room for Lumet’s Fail Safe (1964) was so authentic that the Justice Department came knocking. They were wondering how the layout, console desks and electronic wall maps were so close to the real thing.
That same year, while working as assistant art director for the legendary Richard Sylbert on Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, Brenner scouted the real-life Harlem location for the pawnshop and began dressing the set.
Overnight, however, the shop was hit in a robbery, and security bars were installed on the windows. The unexpected upgrade resulted in an astonishing accident — when the set was lighted, the window bars fell as shadows across Rod Steiger’s face, producing a powerful motif used during his Holocaust flashback sequences.
For John Boorman’s neo-noir classic Point Blank (1967), Brenner designed the cold, gray color palette of the sets and props to reflect the obscurity of Lee Marvin’s character.
“And then as he meets a lady and love life begins to comes back in, more color comes back in, until we end the film in full color,” he noted in 2002.
The following year on yet another classic, Bullitt, director Peter Yates instructed Brenner to remove the color red from the entire film, unless it was blood.
“So, we took Coca-Cola signs and stop signs down to brown, we removed signs off buildings that were red and painted them. We did all of that work, and in one scene Steve McQueen goes into a grocery store and buys TV dinners, and he picks up a dozen of them all of different colors.”
For 2010, the sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, Brenner helped designed the Russian spacecraft Leonov to be “like a flying tugboat or submarine,” a stark contrast to the sleek design of the Discovery craft in the original.
With the magic of movies, he turned a ski tote, pieces of a lawnmower, a child’s car seat and pool filters into set pieces that adorned the interior of the ship.
After a backyard picnic one afternoon, he was fascinated by the design of the ice cream cones’ Styrofoam packaging, so yep, that went on the walls as well.
Born in Brooklyn on Feb. 17, 1926, Brenner studied scenic design for the stage, served in the U.S. Air Force, attended Yale Drama School and taught the skills of costume design and technical theater at the University of Kansas City.
Of his window-dressing job, he said it “was wonderful training for films, as you were telling a little story with mannequins and props, using the window as your stage.”
After serving in World War II as a gunner, he began his career on CBS’ The Phil Silvers Show (for $250 a week) and Captain Kangaroo, on NBC’s Car 54, Where Are You? and on ABC’s 1958 game show Make Me Laugh.
As associate art director for Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961), Brenner dressed the rundown Times Square pool hall sets, right down to the strung-wire scoring beads.
Working under production designer Harry Horner (who would win an Oscar for the film), he marveled at being on the set with the A-list stars Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott.
“Gleason was laid back, cracking jokes between takes, whereas Scott and Newman manifested an intense vibe that was riveting to observe. I was in awe just to watch those guys act,” the told author James C. Udel for the 2014 book The Film Crew of Hollywood.
In 1963, the Oscar-nominated art direction of Newman’s Hud — “minimalist, nothing on walls, no clutter anywhere, you can’t do that today,” he said — amazed him. Seven years later, he got a chance to work on his own Western, creating the single-floor saloon set in the Marvin-starring Monte Walsh (1970).
“No upstairs rooms existed back then,” he noted. “The falsehood was a common misconception invented by Hollywood for the stunt-staging purpose of falls over stair rails and gun fights on the landings.”
For Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks (1976), he scouted the location of Red Lodge, Montana, and for its lead star, Method actor Marlon Brando, he acquired a tepee for him to live in while on set.
Somehow, Brenner found time to collaborate with even more greats — Jerry Schatzberg on Scarecrow (1973), Mel Brooks on Silent Movie (1976), Ron Howard on Backdraft (1991) and Billy Crystal on Mr. Saturday Night (1992).
On a Backdraft making-of documentary, Brenner said that “the biggest problem we had was what do you do with ‘take two’ after you’ve burned the set, because this is real fire.”
“You had to do take two, three, four, whatever was needed. So, it was all designed by effects to just turn the valves, and it all went out. And I had to just make it with fire-retardant paint or chemicals that go over it, to slow the fire down. Most of the stuff didn’t really burn.”
He recalled Howard telling him that he wanted “the fire to have a brain, like the shark in Jaws.”
For a key sequence in which a firefighter falls into a flooded elevator shaft, Brenner built only three walls of the set and lowered it slowly into a swimming pool. This produced the effect of the water rising when in fact the walls behind the actor were going down.
He first worked with Hyams on the set of his directorial debut, the 1972 telefilm Rolling Man, followed by Peeper (1975), Capricorn One (1977), Running Scared (1986) and The Presidio (1988).
For Capricorn One, he trusted that the simplest optical illusion was the most convincing — large rocks in the foreground, smaller rocks in the background to convey distance. And for Michael Crichton’s thriller Coma (1978), he suspended 20 dummies (and six actual actors) via rigging and visible wires for the creepy film’s defining image.
In addition to Beaches, Brenner partnered with Marshall on Pretty Woman (1990), Frankie and Johnny (1991), Dear God (1996), The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004), Georgia Rule (2007) and Valentine’s Day (2010).
He completed the rebuilding of the Paramount lot, made up of 46 facades over six blocks, in 1992 at a cost of $15 million.
Brenner’s other notable design work included the gritty apartment inhabited by heroin addicts and jazz musicians in Shirley Clarke’s The Connection (1961) and the Nantucket beach house and New England barn that played central roles, respectively, in Mulligan’s Summer of ’42 (1971) and The Other (1972).
He received the lifetime achievement award from the Art Directors Guild in 2003.
Away from the film industry, Brenner was an accomplished painter, a passion fueled from his studies at the New York School of Industrial Arts, and was a member of the California Art Club and associate member of the National Sculpture Society.
Survivors include his wife, Susan — they met when she worked as Ross’ assistant on The Goodbye Girl and were married for more than 40 years — son David, who served as a construction coordinator with him on his later films; daughters Faye, Rachel and Mara; and six grandchildren.
Donations in his name can be made to the Motion Picture & Television Fund.
“Albert was a perfectionist,” his family said. “Whether he was cooking a Chinese dinner for his family or friends, practicing magic or designing a street for a film on the backlot at Paramount Studios, it had to be right.”
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