Mort Engelberg, producer of hit films and presidential campaigns, dies at 86


Mort Engelberg, film producer behind hits like “Smokey and the Bandit” and “The Big Easy,” who used his Hollywood experience to direct political appearances, notably a bus tour for Bill Clinton and Al Gore after the war of 1992. Democratic Convention, died Saturday in a Los Angeles hospital. He was 86 years old.

His brother, Steven Engelberg, said the cause was lung cancer.

Engelberg alternated between filmmaking and political advancement work, organizing campaign trips aimed at producing photo-ready moments and drawing on road movie tropes to help invent the modern presidential bus tour. It featured the gregarious Clinton and his sidekick Gore on a trip through Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky and other heartland states.

“Mort came in with basically the same formulation as the Hollywood buddy movie that he so perfected in his 'Smokey and the Bandit' series,” said Josh King, Engelberg's colleague on the campaigns and during the Clinton presidency.

Presidential candidates had long made stopover tours, initially by train. However, in the 1980s, trips were on charter planes with brief airport stops — “basically nothing more than some white men on the tarmac,” as Engelberg said in a 2011 podcast.

The eight-day bus trip, which drew crowds, helped cement Clinton's image as a no-frills retail politician. “His success with him was spectacular,” said Mickey Kantor, Clinton's 1992 campaign chairman. “It fits with his greatest strength, because Bill Clinton really wants to talk to every human being he's ever seen.”

Kantor said the bus tour was Engelberg's brainchild and that he organized it despite the skepticism of many in the campaign.

Since then, even the most rigid politicians have felt compelled to embark on bus trips, whether to run for president or City Council.

Despite Engelberg's successful career in Hollywood, he gravitated toward one of the least glamorous jobs in politics: that of advance person, scouting locations, planning logistics, setting up chairs and rope and ensuring a loud turnout. He told members of his team that if the press caught them organizing a mob (making it look anything but spontaneous) he would fire them.

Mr. Engelberg “loved the action,” his brother said. He never received a salary and lived off the income from his film production, apart from 1977's “Smokey and the Bandit,” starring Burt Reynolds and Sally Field, and “The Big Easy” (1986), with Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin. , included “The Huntsman” (1980) with Steve McQueen.

In 1992, he told the Los Angeles Times that he liked campaign preview work because it was “therapeutic” and a “wonderful relief” from Hollywood.

Engelberg began traveling with Clinton in 1991, when the future president was governor of Arkansas and his entourage included only a few aides. In February 1992, when Clinton finished second in the New Hampshire primary, Engelberg took one look at the flower-covered stage where Clinton planned to celebrate being “the comeback kid” and rejected the demanding display. “This is not a wedding or a bar mitzvah,” he said. Clinton and Hillary Clinton ended up appearing on a bare stage.

Engelberg organized trips for Clinton during his presidency, from 1993 to 2001. After the president left office, Engelberg continued to plan several foreign trips for him each year. “The best talent he had was that he had the full trust of Bill Clinton,” Kantor said.

In an email, Clinton wrote: “I loved the moments I shared with Mort. He was a fascinating man: funny, big-hearted, and always mentoring the younger people in his orbit. He told the best stories, educated us on how to make movies, and never stopped believing in America.”

Decades older than most people in his line of work, Engelberg would “delight everyone with his stories and teach them how to light and set a stage, where to put people,” said Joe Carey, an aide in the Clinton administration and part of Mr. Engelberg's team.

Carey recalled a trip to Northern Ireland in 1998, when Clinton and Clinton, then in the White House, met with victims and relatives of a terrorist attack that had killed 29 people. Mr. Engelberg gave instructions to the advance team about the solemn ceremony.

“He said, 'Treat these people the way they should be treated,'” Carey said. “'I don't want ropes or poles, and I don't want any formalities.'”

Morton Roy Engelberg was born on August 20, 1937 in Memphis. His father, Nathan Engelberg, sold wholesale meat and cheese, and his mother, Lillian (Padawer) Engelberg, helped in the business.

Engelberg graduated from the University of Illinois in 1959 and spent a year studying photojournalism at the University of Missouri, after which he worked briefly for The Commercial Appeal of Memphis.

He moved to Washington to work on a government magazine for the United States Information Agency, which led to serving as a public relations officer under Sargent Shriver, who founded the Peace Corps.

When the Vietnam War distracted the Johnson administration from its domestic agenda, Engelberg moved into the film industry, working as a publicist on the set of “The Dirty Dozen” in 1967. He moved into production, working his way up to the role of line producer, the executive in charge of logistics.

His first producing credit was on “Smokey and the Bandit,” an action comedy starring Reynolds, then one of Hollywood's highest-paid stars, as a smuggler and Fields as a runaway bride, who are chased across the South by a sheriff played by Jackie Gleason. Made on a budget of $4.3 million, it grossed over $300 million worldwide, ensuring Engelberg years of residual payouts.

“It's certainly not Citizen Kane, but I guess it struck a chord,” he later said. He went on to earn credits as a producer or executive producer on more than a dozen films.

His experience on film sets brought him back to politics. He did advance work for the unsuccessful Democratic presidential campaigns of Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Michael S. Dukakis in 1988.

Engelberg married Helaine Blatt, the retired Beverly Hills pawn shop owner, in 2016, after the couple dated for 26 years. Engelberg, an elusive bachelor, married Blatt on her 75th birthday, when he was 79. She survives him, along with her brother.

Describing the beginning of the 1992 Clinton-Gore bus ride in the 2011 podcast, Engelberg recalled years later that both Clinton and Gore had doubts when the nominating convention ended in New York City and they were told how to approach a Campaign. bus heading to New Jersey.

“On the elevator going down, the governor whispered to me if he thought it was a good idea,” Engelberg recalled, “and the only answer I could give him was that we had already rented the buses.”

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