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Sam Mercer Dies: Producer On M. Night Shyamalan Films, ILM Exec & Location Manager On ’80s Classics Was 69

Sam Mercer Dies: Producer On M. Night Shyamalan Films, ILM Exec & Location Manager On ’80s Classics Was 69

Sam Mercer, who produced seven M. Night Shyamalan films including The Sixth Sense, headed Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic and was location manager on several classic 1980s pics, has died. He was 69.

His wife Tegan Jones told Deadline that Mercer died February 12 of younger-onset Alzheimer’s.

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“He was the best big brother I could have hoped for,” Shyamalan said in a statement. “He made every movie a family, and I’ve tried to emulate that in every film since.”

Mercer moved to Los Angeles from Weston, MA, to work in the movie industry. He began his career as a location manager on such 1980s gems as Stripes, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Peggy Sue Got Married and The Witches of Eastwick before moving to Walt Disney Studios.

Paul Reubens in ‘Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure’ (1985)
Paul Reubens in ‘Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure’ (1985)

There he worked as a production executive, supervising movies including Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poets Society, which earned Robin Williams his first two Best Actor Oscar nominations. After being promoted to VP Motion Picture Production at Disney’s Hollywood Pictures, Mercer oversaw such films as Best Picture Oscar nominee Quiz Show, The Joy Luck Club, Born Yesterday, Swing Kids, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Arachnophobia.

After leaving Disney, Mercer transitioned to independent producing. He worked on Congo (1995) and Relic (1997) before linking up with Shyamalan as an executive producer on the Bruce Willis-led smash The Sixth Sense. Also starring Haley Joel Osment, the film was a global sensation, grossing $672.8 million to become the No. 2 movie of 1999, behind only Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

Sam Mercer dead
Sam Mercer and M. Night Shyamalan at ‘The Last Airbender’ premiere in 2010

“Sam and I started working together when I was in my mid-20s,” Shyamalan said. “He taught me that the culture of a set comes from the top down. He led with kindness and showed me how to navigate pressure with grace. … He made me laugh and took care of me at the same time. He did this with everyone. I’ll never forget his perfectly neat desk, his gentle eyes and his magical ability to convey that everything was going to be OK. When he was around, that was always true.”

That began a decade-long run Shyamalan films on which Mercer was a producer or EP: Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender. During that time, Mercer also worked on Mission to Mars, Jarhead and Things We Lost in the Fire. He went on to produce several 2010s films, including Snow White and the Huntsman and the BFG.

Sam Mercer dead
Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson in ‘Unbreakable’ (2000)

In 2015, Mercer was named head of Disney/Lucasfilm’s VFX giant Industrial Light & Magic, overseeing its four locations in San Francisco, Vancouver, London and Singapore. Upon his hiring, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy said, “Sam has that rare ability to head off potential issues before they become real problems, and he manages to do it while maintaining an even keel and level of professionalism that has earned him the respect and admiration of every crew he works with.”

His final credit was 2020’s Concrete Cowboy, starring Idris Elba, which was written and directed by Mercer’s former assistant, Ricky Staub.

“Working for Sam changed the entire trajectory of my life,” Staub said in a statement. “He showed me how filmmaking could be a transformative experience for a crew and not just a job. It’s the in-between moments I cherish the most: the walks to lunch, him jokingly calling me ‘Ricky Bobby,’ the late nights when it was just us with pages of spreadsheets. In his passing, I am filled with immense gratitude that I got to experience, firsthand, this man’s beautiful legacy.”

Along with his wife, Mercer is survived by his son Miles and daughter Sierra. A memorial service will be held in the fall. In lieu of flowers or gifts, the family requests that donations be made to Lorenzo’s House, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting families around the world impacted by younger-onset dementia.

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