x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Reputation lessons from an old school gentleman

AC Lyles, who died last week after nearly 80 years in Hollywood, was a true gentleman, from a different era

Years ago, driving onto the Paramount lot for the first time in a rattling, oil-burning old Subaru, I puttered past a man – no, that’s the wrong word; he was more than that: a gentleman – in a crisp tan suit, neatly knotted tie, and natty two-tone shoes.

He cruised along the car park in a gorgeously-kept robin’s-egg-blue 1950s Thunderbird. The top was down, the engine purred like a fat house-cat, and for a moment the chaos of the movie lot – the sounds of set construction, the static noise of hundreds of deals being negotiated – all faded away. This trim older man would hop out of his car, cover it carefully with a fitted canvas top – the car was always freshly waxed and gleaming, like his shoes – and make the rounds of the studio lot.

Here was a figure from the storied past of Hollywood. Here was a gentleman who embodied the spirited elegance of show business. The moment I saw him, which was roughly the same moment I entered the business, I knew he was someone special, someone rare.

His name was AC Lyles. It was a perfect name for a big-time producer. Almost too perfect, frankly. When you heard it you thought, “Is this guy for real?”

But it really was his name. He was born AC Lyles in south Florida, made his way to Hollywood as a teenager in the 1920s, worked his way up the ladder at Paramount Studios, first as a page, then as a publicist, finally as a producer. He made westerns, gangster shoot-em-ups, most of Elvis Presley’s movies, a bunch of Hope-Crosby “Road” pictures – whatever it was that audiences were flocking to see, AC was shooting it.

By the time I met him, in the early 1990s, he was deep into his 70s and fully retired. But he still maintained an office on the Paramount lot, still drove into the studio every day in his ice-cream Thunderbird and perfectly-cut suit. He’d saunter around the movie lot like he was the mayor of the place. And in a way, he was. Everyone knew him – actors, set designers, guys on the crew – and he was egalitarian with the handshakes and the claps on the back. “How are you doin’?” he’d ask anyone, everyone – even young staff writers driving smoking Subarus. “You doin’ OK?” he’d ask, hand on your shoulder.

He’d work the room at the Paramount Commissary – both sides of it, the fancier sit-down side filled with agents and executives, and the cheaper, more casual cafeteria-style side, where the carpenters and the electricians would lunch. AC always looked sharp and together and stylish in his light-coloured suits. And he smelled good too. AC always travelled in a subtle cloud of Aqua de Parma. Cary Grant wore that cologne. It was Old Hollywood.

AC made movies back when a typical movie studio released 50 pictures a year – and even more B-movies, which is what they called the lower-budget titles that would run before or after the main picture in a cinema. Show business in those days was really a business. No one made sudden fortunes on one movie – no studio was handing out nine-figure payments to stars or directors. The trick back then was consistency. You had to deliver, year in and year out, a couple of movies a year. They didn’t all have to be hits, but they all had to get made. The American audience had an insatiable appetite for going to the movies – the typical moviegoer in those days saw three or four movies a week. But they couldn’t see one of yours if you didn’t deliver, so producers like AC learnt how to get things done.

They also learnt that a certain gentlemanly courtliness went a long way towards keeping the trains running on time. AC learnt that if you were polite and respectful to the crew, they’d repay you when you needed an extra hour of shooting off the books, or help keeping a star sober on the set. AC knew in his bones that this was a business built on relationships. Treat people right and you’ll always wrap a picture on time and under budget.

As far as I was concerned, it started with the crease in the suit and the perfect Los Angeles car. A man who took that much care with his personal style – in a time when most of us slouched into the office in identical blue jeans and some kind of drab T-shirt – surely took as much care in the movies he made and the friends he kept.

AC died last week at the age of 95. He had been in the entertainment industry for almost 80 years. The movie business in AC’s day was no less grasping or desperate than the movie business today. The entertainment industry always attracts a disproportionate number of psychopaths and neurotics. But AC was a great example to those of us just starting out that to really succeed here, you need to take the long view. You need to deliver. You need to earn a reputation for civility and decency. You need to be a gentleman.

And looking sharp doesn’t hurt, either.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl