Mort Engelberg, Producer of Hit Films and Presidential Campaigns, Dies at 86


Mort Engelberg, a movie producer behind such hits as “Smokey and the Bandit” and “The Big Easy,” who drew on his Hollywood expertise to stage-manage appearances for politicians, notably a bus tour for Bill Clinton and Al Gore following the 1992 Democratic convention, died on Saturday at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 86.

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

Mr. Engelberg toggled between film and political advance work, setting up campaign trips meant to produce photo-ready moments and drawing on the tropes of road movies to help invent the modern presidential bus tour. It featured the gregarious Mr. Clinton and his sidekick Mr. Gore on a journey through Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky and other heartland states.

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

Presidential candidates had long made whistle-stop tours, originally by train. By the 1980s, though, the trips were made in chartered jets with brief airport stops — “basically, nothing but some white men on tarmac,” as Mr. Engelberg said in a 2011 podcast.

The eight-day bus trip, which drew throngs of people, helped cement Mr. Clinton’s image as a down-home retail politician. “It was spectacular in its success,” said Mickey Kantor, Mr. Clinton’s 1992 campaign chairman. “It fit into his greatest strength, because Bill Clinton truly, truly wants to talk to every human being he’s ever seen.”

Mr. Kantor said that the bus tour was Mr. Engelberg’s brainchild and that he put it together despite the skepticism of many in the campaign.

Ever since, even the most wooden politicians have felt required to embark on bus tours, whether running for president or City Council.

Despite Mr. Engelberg’s successful Hollywood career, he gravitated to one of the least glamorous jobs in politics — the advance person, who scouts locations, plans logistics, sets up chairs and a rope line and ensures a big noisy turnout. He told members of his team that if they were spotted by the press organizing a crowd — making it seem anything but spontaneous — he would fire them.

Mr. Engelberg “loved the action,” his brother said. He never took a salary, living off income from his movie producing, which in addition to “Smokey and the Bandit” in 1977, starring Burt Reynolds and Sally Field, and “The Big Easy” (1986), with Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin, included “The Hunter” (1980) with Steve McQueen.

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

Mr. Engelberg began traveling with Mr. Clinton in 1991, when the future president was governor of Arkansas and his entourage entailed just a few aides. In February 1992, when Mr. Clinton finished second in the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Engelberg took one look at the flower-covered stage where Mr. Clinton planned to celebrate being “the comeback kid,” and nixed the fussy display. “This is neither a wedding nor a bar mitzvah,” he said. Mr. Clinton and Hillary Clinton ended up appearing on a bare stage.

Mr. Engelberg went on to set up trips for Mr. Clinton throughout his presidency, from 1993 through 2001. After the president left office, Mr. Engelberg continued to plan several trips abroad for him each year. “The best talent he had was that he had the full confidence of Bill Clinton,” Mr. Kantor said.

In an email, Mr. Clinton wrote: “I loved the times I shared with Mort. He was a fascinating man — funny, big-hearted and always mentoring younger people in his orbit. He told the best stories, educated us about movie making and never stopped believing in America.”

Decades older than most of the people in his line of work, Mr. Engelberg would “regale everybody with his stories and teach you 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.

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

“He said, ‘You treat these people the way they should be treated,’” Mr. Carey said. “‘I don’t want any rope and stanchions, and I don’t want any formality.’”

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

Mr. 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 at a government magazine for the United States Information Agency, which led to a role as a public relations official under Sargent Shriver, who founded the Peace Corps.

With the Vietnam War pulling the Johnson administration away from its domestic agenda, Mr. Engelberg segued to the movie industry, working as an on-set publicist beginning with “The Dirty Dozen” in 1967. He moved into production, working his way into the role of line producer, the executive in charge of logistics.

His first credit as producer was for “Smokey and the Bandit,” an action comedy starring Mr. Reynolds, then one of Hollywood’s highest-paid stars, as a bootlegger and Ms. Field as a runaway bride, who are pursued 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 Mr. Engelberg years of residual payments.

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

His expertise on movie 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.

Mr. Engelberg married Helaine Blatt, the retired owner of a Beverly Hills pawnshop, in 2016, after the couple had dated for 26 years. An elusive bachelor, Mr. Engelberg married Ms. Blatt on her 75th birthday, when he was 79. She survives him, along with his brother.

Describing the beginning of the 1992 Clinton-Gore bus trip in the 2011 podcast, Mr. Engelberg recalled years later that both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore were dubious as the nominating convention ended in New York City and they were briefed about boarding a campaign bus heading to New Jersey.

“In the elevator riding down, the governor sort of whispered to me if I thought it was a good idea,” Mr. Engelberg recalled, “and the only response I could make was that we’d already rented the buses.”



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