Arthur Gardner is grasping for a memory that seems to lie just out of reach. The longtime Hollywood producer looks at a photo on the wall, gazes at his desk then stares back up at the wall. But prompted by a reporter’s question about Edward G. Robinson, the star of Gardner’s 1953 police procedural “Vice Squad,” his eyes suddenly light up.
“Eddie Robinson? Oh, he was a picnic,” Gardner said as he excitedly recalled the Golden Age actor known for playing gangster parts. “Of course, we got him at the end of his career. We knew it, and he knew it. But he was still fun to work with.”
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences is populated with older members — producers, actors, directors and others — who serve as a living testament to a time when Hollywood was a small town in the most literal sense. But perhaps none of these figures compares to Gardner, who at 101 is the oldest known living member of the Oscars organization.
Oscar voters study Critics like to point out that the academy’s older demographic can mean it is out of touch with average moviegoers. But Gardner is a reminder that the same demographic serves as a link to the industry’s storied past. The year he began making movies, a small, relatively unknown body handed out the Academy Awards for the first time at a private banquet at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
Gardner joined the academy more than a half century ago, he said, when he first became a producer. He hasn’t made a movie since 1982 — “Safari 3000,” an adventure comedy set in Africa that starred David Carradine — but he still tries to come to the office from his nearby assisted-living facility, usually at least once a week.
Gardner still combs through the DVD screeners he’s sent and votes on the nominees and winners almost as soon as he receives his ballot; this year, the producer was particularly taken with Steven Spielberg’s World War I drama “War Horse,” according to his son Doug.
“There’s no point asking him to wait. He already has made up his mind and he’ll send his ballot in before I can even help him,” Doug Gardner said.
Raised in an upper-middle-class Jewish family in small-town Wisconsin, Arthur Goldberg arrived in Los Angeles in 1929 at the age of 18, with dreams of becoming an actor. Renting space in various flophouses, he began piecing together a living as an extra.
A chance meeting helped him land a small part as a German student in “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Hitchhiking from the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue to Universal Studios, he was picked up by a man who turned out to be George Cukor, the filmmaker who would go on to direct “A Star is Born” and “My Fair Lady” but who at the time was working as a dialogue coach on “Quiet.”
During World War II, Gardner (like many Jewish actors at the time, he changed his name because of fears of anti-Semitism) served in the Army’s first motion picture unit, making educational and other films under the guidance of a young whippersnapper named Ronald Reagan. Gardner recalls this as he sits in his memorabilia-crowded office in a Beverly Hills high-rise, pointing to a group photo of an Army basketball team, first gesturing to his longtime producing partner, the late Jules Levy, and then to Reagan.
Did he ever think the baby-faced man in the photo would be president? “Who, Ronnie?” Gardner said, letting out a huge laugh.
When the war ended, Gardner turned to producing — “I wasn’t the greatest actor anyway, so it made sense” — making his debut with a 1952 serial-killer B-movie titled “Without Warning!” that he financed with money borrowed from friends and family.
Things eventually picked up, and Gardner’s credits, though decidedly of the churn-’em-out school of mid-century Hollywood, went on to feature a who’s who of mid-century American talent, particularly of the Western variety; among others, he worked with Chuck Connors and Barbara Stanwyck, as well as John Wayne on one of the actor’s final films, 1974’s “McQ.”
“People talk about the glamour. Most of that is bull… of course. You just work your … off,” Gardner said, using two of his favorite mild profanities. “But there is a certain amount of excitement working with the actors and the actresses.” He added, “I always liked working with the actresses more than the actors.”
The producer, a widower, remains in remarkable physical shape for his age — he climbed Machu Picchu in his 90s and continues to swim regularly — although his speech and his memory often show signs of his advanced age.
CBS has been developing a television remake of “The Rifleman,” the 1950s Western series that is one of Gardner’s best-known productions, though Gardner’s involvement is minimal. Asked how he feels about that, Gardner said he has no illusions about how Hollywood has moved on.
“I like to read scripts,” Gardner said, as he sits in a library-quiet office where, by both his own admission and all indications, there is not much going on.
“I know we can’t make anything anymore,” he added, his tone growing melancholy. “I just love this business too much to go anywhere else in the morning.”