Film producer and ‘fixer’ behind Beatles films including A Hard Day’s Night and Magical Mystery Tour
Working in the film industry, Denis O’Dell, who has died aged 98, was a fixer, usually credited as an associate producer or assistant director and ensuring that everything was in place to make the film within budgetary constraints. He did not mind that others took the glory that he had made possible. Best known for his association with the Beatles, he worked on their first film, A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and was the producer on their television film Magical Mystery Tour (1967).
When the film company United Artists asked him to work with the director Richard Lester on A Hard Day’s Night, initially O’Dell was not keen. “I didn’t want to make a pop film as usually they are just a vehicle for making money,” he recalled. “Bud Ornstein told me: ‘These guys won’t last and we want to do it as cheaply and quickly as possible.’ I said I wasn’t interested, but my kids said: ‘Are you serious?’ I immediately took to Richard Lester as he liked taking chances: we shot moving scenes on a train rather than use back projection.”
By careful planning, the film ran to budget: “The final cost was £180,000 and United Artists’ share of the music track paid for the entire film in three days.”
United Artists had the bargain of a lifetime, but O’Dell had a harder task in 1980 when the costs of its epic western Heaven’s Gate were spiralling out of control and he was asked as executive producer to rein it in. The director Michael Cimino needed another $5m as he wanted to film a lavish ball. Furthermore, his preferred location, the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford, had turned him down.
O’Dell secured that location and demonstrated how the shoot there could be reduced from 12 days to five. “It wasn’t difficult,” he told me in 2002. “I had seen Lester use multiple cameras and I suggested that.” The film was wrapped up relatively quickly with O’Dell skilfully persuading John Hurt to return to the set even though his patience had been stretched to the limit.
O’Dell was born in Kensington, London, to Elizabeth (nee Gills) and John O’Dell. He was one of nine children, and although he won a scholarship to Kingston grammar school, his parents could not afford to buy the uniform. On leaving school he worked as a teaboy on the film The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939) and then joined the RAF, hoping to train as a pilot. This was not possible because of his colour blindness. He instead became an engineer and was seconded to the New Zealand air force.
After the second world war O’Dell became a chauffeur for film executives and used the opportunity to learn about the business. He was appointed assistant director to Brian Desmond Hurst on Scrooge (1951), starring Alastair Sim, an innovative film with its use of dissolves and overlaps.
After working on several features, O’Dell became the associate producer for the comedy Carry on Admiral (1957) with David Tomlinson. It was clearly the inspiration for Carry on Sergeant (1958), the film that started the franchise. In 1963 he was associate producer for a big-budget Viking epic for Columbia Pictures, The Long Ships with Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier, and then came his involvement with the Beatles.
In 1966, when Lester was looking for finance for his black comedy How I Won the War, O’Dell met the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, on his behalf. Epstein agreed and suggested a role for John Lennon.
O’Dell co-produced with the Beatles on the TV movie Magical Mystery Tour but he wished the script had been better coordinated. He recalled: “Paul had wanted to repay the BBC for their loyalty to the Beatles and they responded by showing it in black and white.” (The film was broadcast shortly afterwards in colour).
His efforts to get the Beatles to record their own voices for the animated film Yellow Submarine (1968) fell on deaf ears. “They should have done it as they would have invented so much stuff.”
O’Dell was appointed a director of Apple Corps and the head of Apple films, although there was never the finance to do anything special. Maybe that was just as well as his idea for the four Beatles in The Lord of the Rings with Lennon as Gandalf seems too weird even for the psychedelic 60s and certainly for JRR Tolkien, who vetoed the project.
He did, however, secure funding for The Magic Christian (1969), with Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr and a script written by Terry Southern, John Cleese and Graham Chapman. It was a troubled shoot with an unpredictable Sellers firing a continuity girl for wearing purple. O’Dell was impressed by Badfinger’s score – the group had recently signed to Apple records – and he subsequently helped to promote their albums.
O’Dell was namechecked in song by the Beatles, who referred to him as Denis O’Bell in You Know My Name (Look Up the Number), the B-side of Let It Be. It led to anonymous phone calls from persistent fans.
In the 1970s O’Dell often worked with Sean Connery and in 1976 he produced Lester’s Robin and Marian, with Connery as an ageing Robin Hood. He had originally secured Charlton Heston for a role in the film but the American star then said he would only play Robin Hood.
In 2002, Odell wrote a memoir, At the Apple’s Core: The Beatles from the Inside, with Bob Neaverson. He retired to Almería, Andalusia, and advised several Hollywood directors on locations in Spain.
O’Dell had three children, Denise, Shaun and Kevan, with his first wife, Ruby Taylor, whom he married in 1946; the marriage ended in divorce, and Kevan predeceased him. He is survived by his second wife, Donna Barnes, their children, Arran and Laragh, and by Denise and Shaun, 13 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
• Denis O’Dell, film producer, born 2 May 1923; 30 December 2021