Orion: William Bernstein, Co-Founder of Studio, Dies at 87

William Bernstein, Co-Founder of Upstart Orion Pictures, Dies at 87


William Bernstein
Courtesy of Family

William Bernstein

William Bernstein, the longtime studio executive who exited United Artists with four others to launch Orion Pictures in 1978, then spent a decade at Paramount Pictures, died Thursday at his Bel Air home of Parkinson’s disease. He was 87.

Along with Mike Medavoy, Arthur Krim, Robert Benjamin and Eric Pleskow, Bernstein departed UA, which had been sold to Transamerica in 1967, to form Orion, the first new major player in Hollywood since the 1930s.

It was Bernstein who came up with the name of the studio; he once told The New York Times, “Orion is the largest constellation; it has five stars, just like us.”

The execs signed a deal with Warner Communications that gave them full control of the marketing and advertising of their films through the use of the Warner Bros. distribution system. Meanwhile, the studio they left behind released the box office bomb Heaven’s Gate (1980), and Transamerica ended selling UA to Kirk Krekorian in 1981 for $320 million.

With his help, Bernstein made such movies as Amadeus (1984), Platoon (1986), Dances With Wolves (1990) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), all of which won the Oscar for best picture. Silence of the Lambs, in fact, won all five major Academy Awards, a feat that has occurred just three times in history.

Among other successful Orion films under him: Caddyshack (1980), Arthur (1981), Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Back to School (1986), Three Amigos (1986) and Radio Days (1987).

In February 1992, Bernstein, then president of Orion and with the company under protection of federal bankruptcy laws, resigned to become executive vp of Paramount, taking charge of business affairs, legal, finance and studio administration.

He worked closely with studio chairman Sherry Lansing for more than 10 years, during which time he was involved in negotiations relating to the development and production of such classics as Forrest Gump (1994), Braveheart (1995) and Titanic (1997), each a best picture winner as well.

Born in the Bronx, Bernstein graduated from NYU and Yale Law School as the first member of his family to attend college. In between, he served in the U.S. Army from 1954-56.

Bernstein joined UA in its motion picture legal department in 1959. He rose to senior executive vp during his 19 years with the studio, where he was involved in the acquisition of the rights to the James Bond franchise and the financing and distribution of the Rocky franchise, plus other successful films like 1963’s The Pink Panther, 1969’s Midnight Cowboy and 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (another winner of the big five Oscars).