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Mark Damon, Actor Turned Indie Film Exec and ‘Monster’ Producer, Dies at 91

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Mark Damon, who starred in the Vincent Price horror classic House of Usher and spaghetti Westerns before revolutionizing the foreign sales and distribution film business and producing features including 9 1/2 WeeksMonster and Lone Survivor, has died. He was 91. 

Damon died Sunday of natural causes in Los Angeles, his daughter, Alexis Damon Ribaut, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Damon spent the first 20 years of his career as an actor, including about a dozen as a leading man in Italian action movies, before he transitioned to the business side.

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He had early success as an executive producer with two movies written and directed by Wolfgang Petersen: the German-language World War II drama Das Boot (1981), which received six Oscar nominations, and The NeverEnding Story (1984), a big-budget fantasy film that featured a Damon-commissioned score by Giorgio Moroder for non-German audiences.

He shared an Independent Spirit Award with director Patty Jenkins and others for Monster (2003), starring Charlize Theron in an Oscar-winning turn as real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

Damon produced or executive produced some five dozen features during his career, among them Adrian Lyne’s 9 1/2 Weeks (1986), John Badham’s Short Circuit (1986), Joel Schumacher‘s The Lost Boys (1987), Stalingrad (1993), The Jungle Book (1994), Trey Parker’s Orgazmo (1997), A Dog of Flanders (1999), The Upside of Anger (2005), Baltasar Kormákur’s 2 Guns (2013), Peter Berg‘s Lone Survivor (2013), The Last Full Measure (2019) and Willy’s Wonderland (2021).

Born Alan Harris in Chicago on April 22, 1933, Damon attended Fairfax High School and UCLA in Los Angeles, studied acting with Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner and roomed with Jack Nicholson.

He had a big year as an actor in 1956, showing up on CBS’ Alfred Hitchcock Presents and in the films Inside Detroit, Screaming Eagles and Richard Fleischer’s Between Heaven and Hell.

He graduated to leading man status with Young and Dangerous (1957) and The Party Crashers (1958) — both opposite Connie Stevens — plus Life Begins at 17 (1958), This Rebel Breed (1960) and then AIP’s House of Usher (1960), from producer-director Roger Corman.

For his performance as the fiancé of a woman (Myrna Fahey) whose demented brother (Price) desperately tries to prevent them from marrying, Damon received a Golden Globe for most promising male newcomer.

When he was 28, he went to Italy and was cast in Westerns. “I was surprised, because I had never ridden a horse in my life,” he said in a 2014 interview. “Cowboys had to be tall and blond, and I’m not that tall. I had very dark hair at the time, but they said, ‘It doesn’t matter. You’re American.’ I said OK and learned to ride a horse.”

He starred in Italy in Sergio Corbucci’s The Shortest Day (1963), Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963), The Son of Cleopatra (1964), Secret Agent 777 (1965), Ringo and His Golden Pistol (1966), Johnny Yuma (1966), A Train for Durango (1968), The Young, the Evil and the Savage (1968), Pistol Packin’ Preacher (1971), Crypt of the Living Dead (1973) and Bang, and the Angels Sing (1974).

Mark Damon in 1966’s ‘Ringo and His Golden Pistol’ Courtesy Everett Collection

With Damon finding himself typecast and Westerns becoming outworn, he quit acting to find something else to do, and in 1975 he took a job with an Italian film distributor that paid him $1,000 a month. “They really wanted me because they thought I knew everyone in Hollywood and could get them bigger pictures,” he said.

At the time, the major U.S. studios handled foreign sales, but he thought local companies could get more box office out of films.

“An independent distributor overseas who is putting his own money into a film, he’s going to fight a lot harder, not only in the key cities but also the provinces, to make that picture happen, because he has his own money at stake,” he told producer/podcaster Matthew Helderman in 2020. “The majors have their employees who are only interested in their paychecks.”

Damon said it took him about seven years before he finally proved that independents could do better than the studios.

He returned to the U.S. in 1977 and founded the production and sales company Producers Sales Organization. Following Das Boot and The NeverEnding Story, PSO handled foreign sales for Martin Scorsese‘s The King of Comedy (1982) and ‘s Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

After PSO went bankrupt, he, Jon Peters and Peter Guber in 1987 founded Vision International, which eventually was sold to Credit Lyonaisse. In 1993, Damon launched production, sales and distribution outfit MDP Worldwide, which went public; a decade later, it became Media 8 Entertainment, then it filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012.

In 1980, he was one of the founders of the American Film Marketing Association, now known as the International Film & Television Alliance, and he published a book, From Cowboy to Mogul to Monster: The Neverending Story of Film Pioneer Mark Damon, in 2008.

Survivors include his second wife, actress Margaret Markov, whom he married in October 1976 — they first met when she starred in The Arena (1974), which he produced with Corman — their children, Jonathan and Alexis; and son-in-law Mathieu.

“My claim to fame will be the fact that I basically, coming from an acting background, became what they call the godfather of independent films. The one who invented the foreign sales business. The one who invented ways to get films financed,” Damon said in Luke Ford’s 2004 book, The Producers: Profiles in Frustration.

“How did somebody do what I did? Because I didn’t know better. I came in with such fresh viewpoint because I’d been an actor and didn’t know anything.”

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