The Waldorf Conference • A Play

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Spyros Skouras

Spyrous Skouras

"The only Greek tragedy I know is Spyros Skouras," Billy Wilder said after he made "The Seven Year Itch" for Skouras in 1955.

Skouras' origins are in Greek slums, a survival ethic that gave him an edge in dealing with exhibitors and producers. He came to New York, couldn't get work, and stole a train ride to St. Louis before he was kicked off. Luck seems to have played high in Skouras the legend — how he heard of a waiting job in the Jefferson Hotel, how he met some investors at Greek Orthodox Church and thereby got into the Nickelodeon business, how he rode the new medium of film into profits, largely through an uncanny knack for self-promotion. Skouras' success in theaters brought him to the attention of producer William Fox, with whom he quickly rose through the ranks until, by 1943 (or 1942 — sources vary) he became president of Fox. He immediately wanted to get Wendell Willkie as Fox chairman to take pressure off of Joe Schenck. In a surprise coup, the board decided to make Willkie the Fox president and push Skouras aside — they feared his accent would be bad for business. The coup failed and Skouras survived until 1962, during which time he was responsible for exploiting both CinemaScope and Marilyn Monroe.

It was Skouras who gave Darryl Zanuck the freedom to make such socially conscious films as "Pinky," "Gentlemen's Agreement" and "The Snake Pit," putting his money where his mouth was on the subject of quality pictures. The debacle of the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton "Cleopatra" shook him dearly, and then a Zanuck-induced Fox stockholder fight in the mid-1960s ultimately did them both in.

Speaking to Variety in January, 1947, Skouras said that the industry is facing three problems. "First and most important, is the solution of our labor problems." Second is the cost of productions and the third is foreign markets. "Experience has shown that pictures which distort the truth have proved undesirable in the domestic market as well as overseas. When they are truthful and sincere, they are acclaimed everywhere."