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Mort Engelberg, produced Hollywood films and Clinton campaign, dies at 86

Mort Engelberg, a one-time photojournalist who made his way to Hollywood as a producer for movies including “Smokey and the Bandit” and “The Big Easy,” then brought his eye for stagecraft into politics by taking Bill Clinton and Al Gore on the road in 1992 with a celebrated campaign bus tour, died Dec. 9 in a Los Angeles hospital. He was 86.

The cause was lung cancer, said his brother, Steven Engelberg.

Mr. Engelberg’s address book was a guide to the showbiz and political nexus that expanded during the Clinton era.

He was a buddy of Jackie Gleason, who played the sheriff chasing racecar driver Burt Reynolds in the 1977 hit “Smokey and the Bandit.” He hobnobbed with Steve McQueen on the set of the star’s final film, “The Hunter” (1980), which Mr. Engelberg produced. He knew studio heads and top directors — and loved to regale cocktail party guests with insider tales of Hollywood.

Mr. Engelberg came into Clinton’s orbit with a political resume that already included campaign work on the unsuccessful presidential runs of Democrats Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988. Mr. Engelberg’s job with the Clinton campaign was to figure out how to best harness the Arkansas governor’s crowd-mingling powers. Mr. Engelberg envisioned buses rolling through small-town America.

He rented a Ford sedan in Philadelphia, bought a road atlas, headed west and began scouting locations: Chautauqua, N.Y.; Centralia, Ill.; La Crosse, Wis.; New Braunfels, Tex.; and dozens of others places big and small over a 1,000-mile serpentine route. “You look for places that look nice and will make a pretty picture,” he told The Washington Post.

The next step was convincing Clinton and his running mate Gore. The campaign honchos eventually signed off. Yet Gore and some others still nursed doubts even moments before the buses started rolling after the Democratic Convention in July 1992 in New York.

“In the elevator riding down, [Clinton] sort of whispered to me if I thought it was a good idea,” Mr. Engelberg recalled in a 2011 interview on the “Polioptics” podcast, “and the only response I could make was that we’d already rented the buses.”

Before setting off, Clinton proclaimed: “We’re going to go back to the heartland of America and into the hearts of America.” There was one early hiccup. A homeless man was “camping out” on the staff bus and had to be evicted by the Secret Service before the entourage got rolling, Mr. Engelberg recalled.

The eight-day journey — with media in tow — was hailed as a political masterstroke. Big crowds turned out, albeit with some protesters in Republican strongholds. Clinton was in the zone, glad-handing, joking and working the rope line. Mr. Engelberg told friends that the bus trip had all the elements of a good buddy movie: a star in Clinton, a sidekick in Gore and lots of adventures.

For Mr. Engelberg, the trip cemented his legacy as a campaign impresario and redefined political strategies, effectively creating the modern version of the old rail car whistle stops. Mr. Engelberg said one “cynical” consideration was picking locales that were off the beaten political path but not too remote — still within big TV markets.

Mr. Engelberg, too, became a novelty: an advance man who was story in himself. A Post reporter, on the Clinton bus tour, described how Mr. Engelberg stood out among the harried aides and stone-faced Secret Service agents:

“So marvelously tan! His fashionably longish gray hair swooshed back off his high, noble forehead. His glasses always seemed to be resting on top of his head, never his nose. He’d just scan the situation, toking on a cigarette; you could tell he was important even though he didn’t seem to be directing anything. He looked more like … a producer. A Hollywood producer. Exactly!”

Mr. Engelberg set up trips for Mr. Clinton throughout his presidency. He called the advance work — planning photo ops, events and general presidential image-crafting — a “wonderful relief” from Hollywood.

Now, it was Hollywood that came to him seeking some time with Clinton. At Clinton’s April 1993 summit in Vancouver with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Engelberg was gatekeeper for film-world celebrities who met with Clinton, including actors Richard Gere and Richard Dreyfuss.

Mr. Engelberg also knew a good backdrop when he saw it, even if it meant a bit of cosmetic adjustments. He arranged for Clinton and Yeltsin to pose on a breathtaking promontory at the University of British Columbia. What he didn’t mention was that a nude beach was below.

“That’s only in the summer,” Mr. Engelberg told reporters.

Somehow, though, a tree had mysteriously appeared the night before to cover the “Clothing Optional” sign.

Morton Roy Engelberg was born in Memphis on Aug. 20, 1937. His parents ran a meat and cheese wholesale business.

He graduated from the University of Illinois in 1959 and then did postgraduate studies in photojournalism at the University of Missouri. After a stint as a photographer at the Commercial Appeal newspaper in his hometown, he joined the U.S. Information Agency as a writer and photographer.

When a friend landed a job as chief publicist for MGM films across Europe, he asked Mr. Engelberg to join him to lead promotion of specific movies.

He was on the English countryside set of the World War II drama “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), and traveled to West Africa for the making of “The Comedians” (1967), starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Alec Guinness in a film version of the Graham Greene novel set during the rule of Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. (Mr. Engelberg was so annoyed by Taylor’s diva style that, during the 1990s, he made sure she didn’t meet Clinton during a gala event.)

After returning from London, Mr. Engelberg worked in the publicity department of United Artists and then moved into roles such as evaluating scripts. He left to strike out as an independent line producer, putting together film deals and overseeing details such as logistics and budget on the set.

His first producer credit was his biggest hit, “Smokey and the Bandit,” which grossed over $300 million worldwide. “It’s certainly not ‘Citizen Kane,’” he told the Los Angeles Times, “but I guess it struck a chord.” Among more than a dozen other films was “The Big Easy” (1986), a thriller starring Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin.

For more than a quarter century, Mr. Engelberg dated Helaine Blatt, whose family ran a pawnshop in Beverly Hills. They married in 2016 when he was 79 and she was 75. Survivors include his wife and his brother.

Clinton and Mr. Engelberg developed a lasting friendship. But there were no free passes when it came to work. During an August 1995 trip to Yellowstone National Park, Clinton berated Mr. Engelberg for a rare misstep on the optics — allowing the crowds to see the official presidential limousine off to the side.

Clinton said it spoiled the folksy look he wanted. The first family was traveling in Chevy Suburbans.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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