A film producer, Melniker worked at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio during Hollywood’s “Golden Age”, and was such a strong negotiator he earned the nickname “The MGM Lion”. As he rose in the company, he put together the financing deals to enable films, such as Gigi (1958), Ben-Hur (1959), Dr. Zhivago (1965), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and rose to be the company’s only Executive Vice President, with all divisions reporting to him. But he’s best known for joining with up-and-coming producer Michael Uslan in 1979 to buy the film rights to the “Batman” comics. Uslan’s vision was to get away from the campy TV version of the 1960s “to make the definitive, dark, serious version of Batman, the way [Batman creators] Bob Kane and Bill Finger had envisioned him in 1939,” he said. “A creature of the night; stalking criminals in the shadows.” Columbia and United Artists turned down that vision, preferring the silly TV style, so Melniker got financing together — $15 million — to go ahead with the project without a studio. Impressed, Warner Bros., which had success with the “Superman” franchise, signed on, and in 1989, Batman, with Michael Keaton in the title role, and Tim Burton directing.
The result: Batman was the first film in history to break $100 million in box office in its first 10 days; it went on to make more than $411 million worldwide, plus $150 million in home video sales. And, of course, executive producers Melniker and Uslan were given the green light to make multiple sequels. “‘Legendary’ is the only word capable of describing the man,” Uslan says. “Ben was a humble man, never wishing attention. He turned down endless requests to write his book or do interviews about The Golden Age of Hollywood, especially in his latter years as he became the last mogul standing from that era.” Melniker never retired from the business. “Not only was he active in the industry for 79 years, he was sharp right up until the last day” — and still has another movie coming out (as executive producer of Batman Ninja, which is completed and in post-production). Melniker died February 26 — at 104 years old.