Robert Halmi, Sr., was one of the most acclaimed and prolific television producers of his era. A master showman with a love of literature and a gift for large-scale storytelling, Halmi was responsible for dozens of miniseries and made-for-television movies that earned hundreds of awards. They include The Josephine Baker Story, Gulliver’s Travels, Tin Man and many others.
Born in Hungary, Halmi came to America in 1951 with $5 and a Leica camera. A freedom fighter in his native country during a tumultuous time, he was captured, jailed and sentenced to death — twice. Once by Nazi invaders, then by the puppet communist regime. Thanks in part to contacts made when he worked with the OSS (now CIA) in Budapest, Vienna and Salzburg, he was able to emigrate to the U.S.
For two decades, Halmi was one of America’s leading magazine photographers. He embraced extreme adventure and took his beloved Leica anywhere and everywhere on Earth. His iconic images graced the covers and filled the pages of the great magazines of an era, including Life, Sports Illustrated, True and Outdoor Life.
Then, rather abruptly, he changed mediums, turning to television — and the rest, as they say, is history.
Halmi is described in his Peabody Award citation as “perhaps the last of the great network television impresarios.” TV Guide calls him “TV’s master showman.” These and other descriptions fit comfortably on the shoulders of one of the industry’s most prolific and respected producers, whose signature niche in the television business is high-quality, family-friendly longform entertainment. His many projects have been honored with 136 Emmy Awards (and an astonishing 480 Emmy nominations), as well as a full complement of Golden Globes, Peabodys, Christophers and Humanitas Prizes.
Halmi produced more than 200 films and miniseries for television, as well as feature films. He gave James Cagney his last acting job (Terrible Joe Moran) and Catherine Zeta Jones one of her first (Titanic, alongside George C. Scott). He worked with many showbiz “lions,” from Kirk Douglas (The Secret) to Burt Lancaster (Barnum) to Peter O’Toole (Svengali).
His The Josephine Baker Story (Lynn Whitfield, Lou Gossett, Jr) was honored with five Emmy Awards. Other “event” productions include Gypsy (Bette Midler), Scarlett (Timothy Dalton), Merlin (Sam Neill, Isabella Rossellini, Miranda Richardson), Dinotopia and The Tenth Kingdom (Kimberly Williams, John Larroquette, Dianne Wiest).
A great admirer of great literature, Halmi has brought to the screen critically admired and highly rated adaptations of Homer’s The Odyssey (Armand Assante, Greta Scaachi, Geraldine Chaplin), Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (Ted Danson, Mary Steenbergen), Cervantes’s Don Quixote (John Lithgow, Bob Hoskins, Vanessa Williams), Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (Patrick Stewart, Gregory Peck), Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment (Ben Kingsley, Patrick Dempsey), Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (Tina Majorino, Whoopi Goldberg, Robbie Coltrane), George Orwell’s Animal Farm (Pete Postlethwaite, Kelsey Grammer) and Larry McMurtry’s Streets of Laredo (James Garner, Sissy Spacek).
A life-long history buff, Halmi explored our past in such signature classics as The Ten Commandments (Dougray Scott, Omar Sharif), Arabian Nights (John Leguizamo, Rufus Sewell, Alan Bates), Noah’s Ark (Jon Voight, Mary Steenburgen), The Lion in Winter (Glenn Close, Patrick Stewart) and Forbidden Territory: Stanley’s Search for Livingstone (Nigel Hawthorne, Aidan Quinn).
No stranger to controversy, Halmi has explored contemporary issues in projects ranging from In Cold Blood (Anthony Edwards, Eric Roberts) to Human Trafficking (Mira Sorvino, Donald Sutherland) to Dreamkeeper (August Schellenberg, Eddie Spears). The latter miniseries examined the rich legacy of Native American mythology, contrasted with the often grim realities of life in 21st century America.
Even in his eighties, Halmi had not slowed down. His Tin Man (Zoe Deschanel, Alan Cumming, Richard Dreyfuss) was the highest-rated miniseries (all networks) in 2007; it received nine Emmy nominations. Other recent projects include the Peter Pan “prequel,” Neverland (Rhys Ifans, Anna Friel, Bob Hoskins), as well as the Emmy Award-winning Treasure Island (Eddie Izzard, Elijah Wood, Donald Sutherland). Baby Sellers, which dramatized the sordid, inhumane international trade in just-born children, premiered on Lifetime in 2013.
Just three weeks before his passing, The Halmi Company started filming Olympus, a 13-part series for the Syfy Channel.
Halmi died July 30, 2014, in New York City. He was 90.