Obituary of Denis O’Dell | Movie

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Working in the film industry, Denis O’Dell, who died at the age of 98, was a fixer, usually credited as associate producer or assistant director and making sure everything was in place to make the film in the budget limits. He didn’t mind others taking the glory he had made possible. Best known for his association with the Beatles, he worked on their first film, A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and was the producer of their TV movie Magical Mystery Tour (1967).

When the film company United Artists asked him to work with director Richard Lester on A Hard Day’s Night, O’Dell was initially unenthusiastic. “I didn’t want to make a pop film because usually it’s just a way to make money,” he recalls. “Bud Ornstein said to me, ‘These guys won’t last and we want to do it as cheaply and as quickly as possible.’ I said I wasn’t interested, but my kids were like, ‘Are you serious?’ I immediately liked Richard Lester because he liked to take risks: we shot animated scenes on a train rather than using rear projection.

Thanks to careful planning, the film stayed on budget: “The final cost was £180,000 and United Artists’ share of the music piece paid for the entire film in three days.”

Denis O’Dell in 1968. Photo: Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

United Artists made the deal of a lifetime, but O’Dell had a tougher job in 1980 when costs for his epic western Heaven’s Gate spiraled out of control and he was asked as executive producer to rein it in. Director Michael Cimino needed an additional $5 million because he wanted to film a lavish ball. Moreover, his favorite venue, the Sheldonian Theater in Oxford, had turned him down.

O’Dell secured this location and demonstrated how filming could be cut from 12 days to five. “It wasn’t difficult,” he told me in 2002. “I had seen Lester use multiple cameras and suggested it.” The film ended relatively quickly, with O’Dell skillfully persuading John Hurt to return to the set even though his patience had been sorely tested.

O’Dell was born in Kensington, London, to Elizabeth (née Gills) and John O’Dell. He was one of nine children, and although he won a scholarship to Kingston High School, his parents could not afford the uniform. On leaving school, he worked as a teaboy on the film The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939) and then joined the RAF, hoping to train as a pilot. This was not possible due to his color blindness. He instead became an engineer and was seconded to the New Zealand Air Force.

After World War II, O’Dell became a driver for movie executives and took the opportunity to learn more about the business. He was appointed assistant director to Brian Desmond Hurst on Scrooge (1951), starring Alastair Sim, an innovative film with its use of crossfades and overlaps.

After working on several feature films, O’Dell became associate producer of the comedy Carry on Admiral (1957) with David Tomlinson. It was clearly the inspiration for Carry on Sergeant (1958), the film that launched the franchise. In 1963, he was associate producer of a big-budget Viking epic for Columbia Pictures, The Long Ships with Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier, followed by his involvement with the Beatles.

Denis O'Dell with Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Peter Brown, Alexis Mardes and Brian Levis
Denis O’Dell, far left, in the Apple Corps offices with Paul McCartney, John Lennon and other staff in 1968. O’Dell was named Apple’s director and head of its films section . Photography: Jane Bown/The Observer

In 1966, while Lester was seeking funding for his dark comedy How I Won the War, O’Dell met on his behalf with Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Epstein agreed and suggested a role for John Lennon.

O’Dell co-produced the Magical Mystery Tour TV movie with the Beatles, but he wished the script had been better coordinated. He recalled: “Paul had wanted to thank the BBC for their loyalty to the Beatles and they responded by showing it in black and white.” (The film was released soon after in color).

His efforts to get the Beatles to record their own voice for the animated film Yellow Submarine (1968) fell on deaf ears. “They should have done it because they would have invented so many things.”

O’Dell was made director of Apple Corps and head of Apple movies, though he never had the finances to do anything special. Maybe it was just as well that his idea for the four Beatles in The Lord of the Rings with Lennon as Gandalf seems too weird even for the psychedelic 60s and certainly for JRR Tolkien, who vetoed the project.

He did, however, secure funding for The Magic Christian (1969), starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr and a screenplay written by Terry Southern, John Cleese and Graham Chapman. It was a troubled shoot with an unpredictable salesman firing a sequel girl for wearing purple. O’Dell was impressed with Badfinger’s score – the band had recently signed to Apple Records – and he later helped promote their albums.

O’Dell was named in song by the Beatles, who called him Denis O’Bell in You know my name (look up the number), the B-side of Let It Be. This led to persistent anonymous fan phone calls.

In the 1970s O’Dell often worked with Sean Connery and in 1976 produced Robin and Marian de Lester, starring Connery as an aging Robin Hood. He originally got Charlton Heston for a role in the film, but the American star later said he would only play Robin Hood.

In 2002 Odell wrote a memoir, At the Apple’s Core: The Beatles from the Inside, with Bob Neaverson. He retired to Almería, Andalusia, and advised several Hollywood directors on locations in Spain.

O’Dell had three children, Denise, Shaun and Kevan, with his first wife, Ruby Taylor, whom he married in 1946; the marriage ended in divorce and Kevan predeceased him. He is survived by his second wife, Donna Barnes, their children, Arran and Laragh, as well as Denise and Shaun, 13 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

Denis O’Dell, film producer, born May 2, 1923; December 30, 2021

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