Producer Ismail Merchant, whose adaptations of classic novels produced in collaboration with director James Ivory became virtually synonymous with literate, sumptuously appointed costume drama, died M

(The Hollywood Reporter) -- Producer Ismail Merchant, whose adaptations of classic novels produced in collaboration with director James Ivory became virtually synonymous with literate, sumptuously appointed costume drama, died May 25 in a London hospital. He was 68.

He recently had undergone surgery for abdominal ulcers, according to Indian television reports cited by the Associated Press.

Merchant, born in Bombay, India, was partnered with Ivory in Merchant Ivory Prods. for more than 44 years, making theirs one of the longest-running partnerships in independent cinema. Together, they created such lauded period dramas as the E.M. Forster adaptations "Maurice" (1987), "A Room With a View" (1985) and "Howards End" (1992) as well as 1993's "The Remains of the Day," based on the Kazuo Ishiguro novel.

Merchant Ivory Prods. made more than 40 films, in the process earning 31 Academy Award nominations, including three for best picture.

A "Merchant Ivory Production" came to describe an entire movie genre: the impeccably mounted literary costume drama. "There has been no greater individual producer in the history of movies," Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker said. "Ismail laid his body and soul on the line for his director and writer for 45 years. He believed in the freedom of the filmmaker. He always represented quality."

Merchant and Ivory had been in postproduction on their latest period film, "The White Countess," written by Ishiguro and starring Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson and Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave. They were relooping some of the actors in London when Merchant fell ill, said Barker, who plans a November release of the film for awards consideration.

SPC also will release Merchant Ivory's newest film, the contemporary drama "Heights," directed by Chris Terrio, on June 17. In addition, the team also was prepping the film musical "The Goddess," starring Tina Turner as Hindu goddess Shakti.

After earning a master's degree in business administration from New York University, Merchant began his film career by executive producing the short film "The Creation of Woman," which was nominated in 1961 for an Academy Award and selected for the Cannes Film Festival. On his way to Cannes, Merchant met filmmaker Ivory, and they decided to partner in Merchant Ivory Prods. in order to produce English-language theatrical features in India to sell to the international market.

Merchant financed the films by tapping frozen rupee funds from the Hollywood studios.

"Ismail was the first person to open the doors of the East to the West and vice versa," Mira Nair said from the set of "The Namesake" in Calcutta. "Movies like 'Shakespeare Wallah' uniquely intertwined the British and India. When he got it, he got it. He had such an appetite for life; he lived for food, happiness, laughter and commerce."

Merchant Ivory Prods. proved to be one of the most productive collaborations in cinema, yielding three Henry James adaptations, including 1979's "The Europeans," 1984's "The Bostonians" and 2001's "The Golden Bowl," which Merchant bought back from Miramax Films after an editing dispute with Harvey Weinstein. "Ismail was afraid of nobody," SPC co-president Tom Bernard said. "And he was the sweetest man you'd ever meet."

Ismail and Merchant also shared a country estate in Claverack, N.Y., where they worked, entertained regularly and also supported an annual summer artists-in-residence program and informal arts festival.

Merchant was awarded the Honorary Doctor of Arts at Bard College, Wesleyan College and the University of Illinois. For his outstanding contribution to cinema, the Ministry of Culture in France gave him the title of Commander de l'Ordre des Arts er des Lettres.

Merchant was unmarried and had no children.






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