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Bill Gold, designer of famous movie posters, dies at 97

Bill Gold designed posters for more than 2,000

Bill Gold designed posters for more than 2,000 movies. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Susan Gold

Bill Gold, who designed more than 2,000 movie posters, from “Casablanca” and “My Fair Lady” to “Dirty Harry,” “The Exorcist” and “Goodfellas,” making him one of the film world’s leading image-makers, died May 20 at a hospital in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was 97.

He had complications from dementia, said his wife, Susan Gold.

Although Gold worked mostly in New York, his artistry throughout a seven-decade career helped shape the mystique of Hollywood. The first poster he designed, after joining the Warner Bros. art department, was for “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942), starring James Cagney. His second job was “Casablanca.”

Gold later worked on many of Clint Eastwood’s projects and came out of retirement in 2011 to produce the poster for “J. Edgar,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

“The first image you have of many of your favorite films,” Eastwood wrote in the introduction to a 2010 collection of Gold’s posters, “is probably a Bill Gold creation.”

The poster is a humble but crucial piece of advertising that helps define a moviegoer’s mental image of a film. Gold’s job was to entice people into theaters by capturing a film’s message in a single image and a few words — without giving away too much of the plot.

When he was asked in 1942 to design the poster for “Casablanca,” a film of wartime intrigue starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, the movie was still in production. Without seeing a single scene of the movie, Gold painted a montage of its stars, with Bogart in front, wearing a trench coat and fedora. He wrote the word “Casablanca” in a flowing, sign-painter’s script across the bottom.

Still, the executives at Warner Bros. weren’t quite satisfied.

“They thought it was too static, they wanted more action,” Gold told Britain’s Guardian newspaper in 2013. “I didn’t have time to change it much, so I just stuck Bogey’s hand in the front and put a gun in it, and they liked that.”

It scarcely mattered that Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine, did not carry a gun for most of the film.

“Even if it wasn’t exactly the way the movie was,” Gold said in 2010, “you had to come up with something that marketed it and led the audience to believe that they wanted to see it.”

His poster remains an indelible symbol of “Casablanca,” which won Oscars for best picture, director and screenplay. From “Casablanca,” Gold, and the designers who later worked for him, went on to create posters for such films as “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), “The Searchers” (1956), “Cool Hand Luke” (1967), “Funny Girl” (1968), “Bullitt” (1968), “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), “Deliverance” (1972), “The Sting” (1973), “Blazing Saddles” (1974), “On Golden Pond” (1981) and “Mystic River” (2003).

“Gold approached every single movie as a chance to advance the storytelling,” Michael Bierut, a graphic design critic, told the Hollywood Reporter in 2011. “A static image, in theory, can’t possibly have the same power as a 90-minute film, yet he could somehow encapsulate the adventure you are going to have in 90 minutes.”

For “The Sting,” a Depression-era caper movie from 1973 starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Gold borrowed the style of illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, who created the “Arrow Collar Man” advertisements of the early 20th century and many covers for The Saturday Evening Post.

Designing another poster that year, Gold created a much darker mood for “The Exorcist.” Told by the studio that he could not use religious imagery or a picture of Linda Blair — the actress who played a girl possessed by demons — Gold chose a still photo of actor Max von Sydow silhouetted beneath a lamppost.

The stark black-and-white image of von Sydow, who portrays a priest in the movie, became an enduring symbol of William Friedkin’s film.

Posters are meant to evoke an emotional response from audiences and often show images that are not actually in the films. For Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western “The Wild Bunch,” Gold snapped a photograph of the actors walking across a parking lot, trailed by long shadows. He altered the color of the image, enhanced the shadows and created a poster that has been endlessly copied by others.

When Gold designed the poster for Eastwood’s Oscar-winning 1992 film “Unforgiven,” about an aging gunfighter seeking a last measure of justice, he showed Eastwood from the rear, wearing a long coat and broad-brimmed hat, holding a pistol behind his back.

The image pieced together a gun from one photograph, the hands from a second and Eastwood’s head, turned to the left, from another.

Over the years, Gold’s style varied to suit the project and changing technologies and artistic tastes. He began as an illustrator, then switched primarily to photography and ended with computer graphics.

Yet one thing remained consistent: Gold’s name seldom appeared on his work. Even as movie posters became collectors’ items, he was largely unknown outside his profession.

He finally emerged from the shadows in 2010, with the publication of a 16-pound, $650 limited edition book, “Bill Gold: PosterWorks,” with an introduction by Eastwood.

William Gold was born Jan. 3, 1921, in Brooklyn. His father was an insurance salesman.

He began drawing — and going to the movies — at an early age and studied illustration at Pratt Institute.

During World War II, he made training films while serving in the Army Air Forces before returning to Warner Bros. He lived in Hollywood from 1959 to 1962, then moved back to New York, where he formed a company devoted to film projects.

“He loved movies,” his wife said in an interview. “It wasn’t like advertising a can of peas. Every movie is different. You can’t do the same thing twice.”

His first marriage, to Pearl Tamases, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 28 years, Susan Cornfield Gold, of Greenwich; two children from his first marriage; and two grandchildren.

Gold kept a camera with him at all times, photographing images that sometimes ended up in movie posters. One of his final projects, for Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” included the upside-down images of three men reflected in rippling water, a photograph taken near Gold’s house.

He retired in 2004, but several years later received a call from Eastwood, then directing “J. Edgar.”

“Hi, this is Clint,” Eastwood said to Gold. “Would you have one more poster in you?”

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