It was thanks to Ken Adam that I got to hold an Oscar in my hands, and exclaim (as everyone does), “It’s so heavy!” Adam, who passed away on March 10 at the age of 95, is best known as the production designer for many of the early James Bond films, as well as for the bravura sets of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. He loved dreaming up fantastic lairs for bad guys (like Goldfinger’s creepy hideout in Fort Knox), explaining to an interviewer that “to me, designing the villains’ bases was a combination of tongue-in-cheek and showing the power of these megalomaniacs.” None other than Steven Spielberg once told him that his sleek and sinister War Room for Dr. Strangelove was “the best set that's ever been designed.”
Slightly later in his career, Adam turned down the chance to work with Kubrick again on 2001. But they were to reunite for Barry Lyndon. For that film, Adam’s re-creation of the eighteenth-century English countryside, full of manor houses with elegant drawing-rooms, won him his first Oscar in 1975. (That’s the one that sat on his mantelpiece when I visited his home in Santa Monica Canyon.) He ultimately won a second golden statuette for 1994’s The Madness of King George.
The reason I got to meet Adam was because I had been assigned to write a magazine piece on a bold cinematic experiment called Pennies from Heaven. This 1981 film, directed by Herbert Ross and starring Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, and Christopher Walken, was based on a British television series. It tells the bittersweet story of a dreamy sheet music salesman in Depression-era Chicago whose fantasies of love and fortune turn into full-blown musical numbers. This blending of realism and make-believe, combined with the opportunity to make the first film musical in twenty-five years on the fabled MGM lot, drew in such talents as cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather) and costume designer Bob Mackie, making his move away from television. Adam himself was billed as the film’s “visual consultant,” and had much to say about the way it should look.
In the original BBC series the shift from reality to fantasy had an amateurish look that was part of its charm. But Adam insisted that this would never be acceptable in an MGM musical. That’s why the design team worked toward total authenticity in the realistic scenes and a lavish sense of completeness in the let’s-pretend sequences. Major sets included a working diner (modeled after Edward Hopper’s famous painting, “Nighthawks”), a bar room, a flop house, a country schoolroom—in which all desks suddenly convert into miniature grand pianos—and the replica of a swank dance floor (costing $40,000) from an Astaire-Rogers duet. One of MGM’s largest soundstages because a white marble bank lobby 50 feet high, while another was transformed into a nearly full-scale reincarnation of the Chicago Loop.
When I met Adam, I did not at first realize that by birth he was not British but German. Much like director Mike Nichols he’d been born in Berlin, but was forced to flee the Nazis at an early age, relocating in London with his family. During World War II, he courageously joined the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot. After some years in California, he returned to England to live, ultimately being knighted for his service to queen and country, the first production designer so honored. Having made his peace with post-war Germany, he in 2012 handed over his entire archive to the Deutsche Kinemathek, a gracious gesture from a most gracious man..