Denis O’Brien, Force in Ex-Beatle’s Film Company, Dies at 80
Denis O’Brien, who with George Harrison, the former Beatle, founded a production company that made several audacious hit movies, beginning with “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” in 1979, before the partnership and the company’s fortunes soured, died on Friday in Swindon, west of London. He was 80.
His daughter Kristen O’Brien said the death, in a hospital, was caused by intra-abdominal sepsis.
Mr. O’Brien became Mr. Harrison’s business manager in 1973, hired to bring some stability to Mr. Harrison’s financial affairs, which had been muddled since the Beatles broke up four years earlier. And when Mr. Harrison’s friend Eric Idle, of the Monty Python comedy troupe, went to Mr. Harrison with a problem in 1979, it was Mr. O’Brien who nudged Mr. Harrison into producing movies.
Monty Python had begun work on a follow-up to its 1975 hit, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” The new movie was a satire about a man who is mistaken for the Messiah. Mr. Idle’s problem was that EMI, the entertainment conglomerate that had been financing the new movie, had gotten cold feet and pulled out just as production was gearing up. He asked if Mr. Harrison could help financially, and Mr. Harrison in turn consulted Mr. O’Brien.
“Denis called me back a few days later and said, ‘OK, I think I know how to do it: We’ll be the producers,’” Mr. Harrison told The Advertiser of Australia in 1986. “He was laughing because he knew that my favorite movie was ‘The Producers’” — the Mel Brooks comedy — “which I’d watched over and over.”
Mr. Harrison, putting up as collateral his estate in Henley-on-Thames, England, provided some $4 million to make “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.” It was the first release of Handmade Films, the production company that he and Mr. O’Brien created. As Mr. Idle told the story, Mr. Harrison had a simple reason for financing the film: He wanted to see the movie.
“At $4 million, this is still the most anyone has ever paid for a movie ticket,” Mr. Idle wrote in an essay in The Los Angeles Times in 2004.
In his telling, Mr. O’Brien had actually structured the project assuming that the film would lose money and that it could be a tax write-off; instead, it became a hit and a beloved entry in the annals of comedy films. Time Out recently ranked it No. 3 on its list of the 100 greatest comedy movies of all time, trailing only “Airplane!” and “This Is Spinal Tap.”
With “Brian,” Handmade Films was off on a run of quirky critical and often financial successes, including “The Long Good Friday” (1980), a crime drama with Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren; “Time Bandits” (1981), directed by Terry Gilliam of the Python troupe and featuring other Pythons; the noir drama “Mona Lisa” (1986), another vehicle for Mr. Hoskins; and the comedy “Withnail & I,” which became a sort of cult classic and was ranked No. 7 on that Time Out list.
Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Harrison were executive producers on these and numerous other Handmade films, and their early successes were credited with helping to revive the moribund British film industry. They shared a taste for offbeat scripts.
“We tend to do movies that come to us because no one else wants to make them,” Mr. Harrison told Newsweek in 1987.
That was certainly the case with “Time Bandits,” a hard-to-categorize movie about time-traveling dwarves that they had trouble getting distributed, securing a deal with the independent Avco Embassy Pictures only after the major studio distributors had declined.
“There were any number of majors who walked out of the screenings,” Mr. O’Brien told The Los Angeles Times in November 1981, just after the film had enjoyed a robust opening weekend.
But Handmade’s Midas touch didn’t last. Some of its movies were costly bombs, most famously “Shanghai Surprise” (1986), a widely panned adventure yarn that starred Madonna and Sean Penn.
By the 1990s the company was in financial trouble, and Mr. Harrison soon turned on his longtime partner, accusing him in a 1995 lawsuit of mishandling his money. A court later awarded Mr. Harrison more than $11 million. When Mr. O’Brien sought to declare bankruptcy, Mr. Harrison tried to block that declaration.
In 2001, when Mr. Harrison, by then ill with cancer, did not show up to give a deposition in that court challenge, a bankruptcy judge dismissed the case. Mr. Harrison died later that year at 58.
In the years since, Mr. O’Brien took most of the criticism for the collapse of Handmade, which was sold in 1994 to a Canadian concern. In a rare interview, with The Belleville News-Democrat of Illinois in 1996, Mr. O’Brien, who lived in the St. Louis area at the time, gave his own interpretation.
“As long as we were successful, we had a wonderful relationship,” he said of Mr. Harrison.
“The money is not the important aspect here,” he added. “It wouldn’t make any difference if it were a dollar or a million dollars. It’s George not knowing how to accept failure or take responsibility for it.”
Ms. O’Brien, his daughter, used to visit Mr. Harrison’s estate with her father as a child, playing in the elaborate gardens that were Mr. Harrison’s pride and joy. The falling-out, she said by email, was painful for her father.
“I know he felt just as hurt and betrayed as I am sure Harrison felt,” she said.
Denis James O’Brien was born on Sept. 12, 1941, in St. Louis. His father, Albert, worked for Ralston Purina, where he rose to president; his mother, Ruth (Foster) O’Brien, was office manager for an interior-decorator shop as well as a homemaker.
Mr. O’Brien played basketball at Webster Groves High School, near St. Louis, before earning a bachelor’s degree at Northwestern University and a law degree at Washington University in St. Louis.
He worked with the Paris law firm Coudert Frères from 1967 to 1969, then held finance positions at N.M. Rothschild & Sons and the EuroAtlantic Group, working out of London.
In 1971 he began advising the comic actor Peter Sellers, who recommended Mr. O’Brien to Mr. Harrison, a friend.
Mr. Harrison was known to enjoy Pythonesque humor, but Mr. O’Brien also had a sense of impishness. Michael Palin, one of the Pythons, recalled by email that Mr. O’Brien used to call him up and pretend to be Mr. Sellers. Funny accents were a favorite gag — Kristen O’Brien said that when she or her sister, Laura, would call their father, they would sometimes find themselves speaking to “Fritz the German.”
On “Life of Brian,” Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Harrison let the Pythons do the filmmaking, but Mr. O’Brien later became more involved in the creative side of movies he was financing. His detractors said this had contributed to the company’s downfall; however, the screenwriter Stephen Rivele (“Ali,” “Nixon”), who with his writing partner, Chris Wilkinson, wrote seven scripts for Handmade in its later years (though none were produced), said his experience with Mr. O’Brien had been positive.
“On every draft, he gave careful, handwritten notes, which were always as perceptive as they were polite,” Mr. Rivele said by email. “He had very keen insights and original ideas which invariably made the scripts better.”
Mr. O’Brien moved back to England in 2008 after living near St. Louis for a time. At his death he lived in Little Somerford. He was married four times, most recently to Phyllida Riddell O’Brien, who died in 2019. In addition to his daughters — who are from his first marriage, to Karen Lazarus — he is survived by a brother, Douglas.
Ms. O’Brien said that in the last year her father had been showing signs of dementia, which seemed to alter his memory of his relationship with Mr. Harrison.
“He seemed to have forgotten there was ever a falling-out,” she said, “and in this last year he loved to hear George’s music, and it would transport him back to some really good times in his life. He had nothing but good memories left.”