Wayne Fitzgerald, Master of Films’ Opening Moments, Dies at 89


Wayne Fitzgerald put a thrown-pillow ballet at the beginning of “Pillow Talk.” He opened “Bonnie and Clyde” with an evocative montage of vintage photographs. He started “Footloose” off with two dozen pairs of dancing feet.

Mr. Fitzgerald, a prolific designer of title sequences for film and television whose work included some of the most memorable opening moments those mediums have seen, died on Monday on Whidbey Island in Washington State. He was 89.

The death was confirmed by his wife, MaryEllen Courtney, who said his health had deteriorated since he contracted the flu last spring.

Mr. Fitzgerald, who lived on the island in the city of Langley, began designing opening titles in the 1950s, when not much thought was given to them. But during his career, and to a significant extent because of his career, those segments came to be regarded as something of an art form, a chance to impart information, set a tone, capture the attention of an audience still settling into seats.

“Title makers are moviemakers,” he told Variety in 1997, an indication of the seriousness with which he took his work. The sequences he imagined often took substantial effort to execute.

“He never worried about how he was going to pull off a piece,” Ms. Courtney, who worked with Mr. Fitzgerald for many years, said by email, “which led to some real innovation because he worked before computer graphics.”

She cited two examples: the 1990 movie “Total Recall,” with its arresting black lettering against a moving red background, and the soap opera “Guiding Light,” for which Mr. Fitzgerald won a Daytime Emmy Award in 1992, when that long-running show used an opening montage that suggested a lighthouse.

“‘Total Recall’ looks simple, but it was tricky to get that on film,” she said. “The turning light for ‘The Guiding Light’ took a garage full of early computers and three days to render. You could probably do that on an iPhone now.”

Wayne Richard Fitzgerald was born on March 19, 1930, in Los Angeles. His father, Raymond, was a milkman who for years distributed his wares from a horse-drawn carriage, and his mother, Mabel Wilma (Rundle) Fitzgerald, worked for a dairy farm and later ran a Comptometer, an early calculator, for an industrial company.

Mr. Fitzgerald graduated from the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., in 1951 and went to work for Pacific Title and Art Studio, which made title sequences for movies — often, at the time, hand lettering them on glass plates.

“We used to wash the glass off and use it again for the next movie,” Mr. Fitzgerald told the Copley News Service in 2003. “So much for history.”

Hollywood was still dominated by studio titans, and title sequences were something of an afterthought, the film’s director having moved on to the next project by the time they were created. Title artists like Mr. Fitzgerald dealt mostly with studio executives like Jack Warner, the president of Warner Bros., who, Mr. Fitzgerald recalled in the Copley interview, liked the lettering to be very, very large.

“He said, ‘If I’m paying the stars all that money, I want their names up there big,’” he said.

In 1955 Saul Bass broke the mold with his title sequence for Otto Preminger’s heroin-addiction film, “The Man With the Golden Arm,” using a grotesquely deconstructed arm in the opening credits. Mr. Fitzgerald was among a group of title designers who followed Mr. Bass’s lead, although some of his early work went uncredited.

For “Pillow Talk,” a 1959 Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedy, he put the credits between two supine figures tossing pillows about. In 2000, when the Film Society of Lincoln Center presented a weekend-long program on film titles, it included “Pillow Talk” among the classics of the art form.

It also cited Mr. Fitzgerald’s work on “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), which opens with vintage Depression-era photographs to set the mood and time period for the story of the famous outlaws. It was one of a number of times Mr. Fitzgerald worked with the pioneering film editor Dede Allen.

“He believed the title should serve the overall story, not itself,” Ms. Courtney noted. “And, as Dede Allen said, he knew story.”

It was Warren Beatty, who played Clyde Barrow in that film, who suggested to Mr. Fitzgerald that he form his own company. He left Pacific Title in 1967 and did so. That move coincided with the fading of the last remnants of the old studio system and the emergence of cinema dominated by auteur directors.

Ms. Courtney said that Mr. Fitzgerald, who worked on hundreds of films and TV shows, would often be called in after a movie had been shown to test audiences, to set or reset the emotional tone.

“‘Crimes of the Heart’ is a great example,” she said, referring to the 1986 film version of Beth Henley’s play, a comic drama. “It starts with a murder and the audience was M.I.A. in the beginning because they were focused on that. Wayne did an animated falling heart. It was simple, but it told the audience not to take it so hard.”

He showed a whimsical touch on “Footloose” (1984), which opens with lots of feet: Two dozen pairs, one after the other, are shown dancing as the Kenny Loggins title song plays.

“He got a kick out of ‘Footloose,’” Ms. Courtney said, “He used footage from professional dancers, plus the grip in ratty tennis shoes, and Kenny Loggins, who was on set.”

Mr. Fitzgerald won two other Emmys: a Daytime Emmy in 1988 for “The Bold and the Beautiful” and a Primetime Emmy in 1987 for “The Bronx Zoo.” Both were shared with David Oliver Pfeil.

Mr. Fitzgerald’s first marriage, to Mary Dunbar, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1995 after 12 years together, he is survived by two sons from his first marriage, Eric and Mark; a stepdaughter, Courtney Nelson; a grandson; and two step-grandsons. A daughter from his first marriage, Ann Crenshaw, died in 2009.

Today the importance of title sequences has been well established. In the 1993 interview, Mr. Fitzgerald recalled his early days, when that was decidedly not the case.

“Even people in the industry would say, ‘What do you do for a living?’” he recalled. “I’d say, ‘I design titles,’ and they’d say, ‘You mean someone does that for a living?’”

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