• Share
  • Tweet
  • Share

It was a fantastic voyage indeed.

Sci-fi legend Richard Fleischer, the Academy Award-winning Hollywood director whose career spanned five decades and dazzled moviegoers with such genre classics as Fantastic Voyage, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Soylent Green, died Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 89.

Fleischer died of natural causes at the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital.

After breaking into the business making documentaries for RKO in New York, the fledgling filmmaker set out for L.A. In 1947 at the age of 31, he won his only Oscar for a documentary he produced but did not direct called Design for Death, which was written by Theodor Geisel, who would later find fame writing children's books as Dr. Seuss. Later that year, Fleischer segued into feature filmmaking full-time with the crime drama Bodyguard.

He made a string of B-movies, including Trapped (1949), Armored Car Robbery (1950), The Narrow Margin (1952), The Happy Time (1952) and Arena (1953) before the call came to take the reins on what would become one of the biggest hits of its day, Walt Disney's big-screen adaptation of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Fleischer nearly declined the job, since his father, Max Fleischer, was the legendary animator behind the Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons and Uncle Walt's chief competitor. But with his dad's okay, the younger Fleischer took the helm of 20,000 Leagues, the most expensive film the Mouse House had ever embarked upon. Starring Kirk Douglas, the F/X-filled film, which included the famous sequence of a giant squid attacking the Nautilus submarine, went on to become a box-office smash, inspired an enduring Disneyland ride and launched Fleischer into the big time.

He would go on to work with some of Tinseltown's biggest stars including Robert Mitchum in Bandido (1955), Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis in The Vikings (1958), Anthony Quinn in Barbaras (1962), Rex Harrison in Dr. Doolittle (1967), Henry Fonda in The Boston Strangler (1968), Omar Sharif in Che! (1969), Charlton Heston in Soylent Green (1973) (which featured the classic, oft-parodied line "Soylent Green is people!"), Charles Bronson in Mr. Mastestyk (1974), and the up-and-coming Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Destroyer (1984).

"He was a man of great talent and an extraordinary director who leaves behind a legacy of amazing films," the Governator said in a statement.

Aside from 20,000 Leagues, Fleischer's most memorable work was 1966's Fantastic Voyage, centering on the adventures of a miniaturized medical team injected inside the body of a dying man. Not only did the film become a hit, win Oscars for set design and special effects for its state-of-the-art depiction of the human anatomy, and introduce audiences to another visual effect, Raquel Welch, but it became a staple in science classes for years to come.

Fleischer was also a codirector on 1970's Tora! Tora! Tora, about the Japanese sneak attack on U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor.

By the mid-70s Fleischer's career had peaked and his golden touch failed to translate into the '80s. Critics bashed his 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer, starring Neil Diamond, and his next three genre films--Amityville 3-D (1983), Conan the Destroyer, and Red Sonja (1984)--flamed out.

After making the little-seen 1987 comedy Million Dollar Mystery, Fleischer retired. In 1993, he published a memoir, Just Tell Me When to Cry, which recounted his 50 years collaborating with some of the biggest names in the business.

"I've had this great opportunity?to work with so many famous and well-known people--stars, moguls, monsters of all sorts," Fleischer told the Los Angeles Times at the time of the book's release.

His son, Mark, remembered Fleischer as a good father.

"My parents made a great effort to insulate their children from the craziness of Hollywood," he told the Associated Press. "They made sure our lives were as normal as possible."

Born in Brooklyn on Dec. 8, 1916, Fleischer studied psychology at Brown University and intended to go to medical school to become a psychiatrist. But he had a change of heart and enrolled in the Yale School of Drama, where he quickly immersed himself in the theater and began directing plays.

After Yale, he landed a job writing scripts for RKO newsreels in New York before stepping behind the camera to make shorts and documentaries, often credited as Richard O. Fleischer due to a clerical error on his birth certificate.

Fleischer is survived by his wife of 53 years, Mary; sons Mark and Bruce and daughter Jane; and five grandchildren.