As a producer, Jack H, Harris made a huge impact with his extraterrorestrial film debut, The Blob, in 1958—attracting the coveted youth market and introducing Steve McQueen to the big screen. Take a look back at a career that has encompassed nearly every facet of the film industry—usher, projectionist, theater manager, distributor, writer, and, ultimately, producer.

Early Life

The legendary Jack Henry Harris was born Thanksgiving Day in Philadelphia, PA, on November 28, 1918.  He was a first generation American, born to immigrant parents from Romania. Jack’s family’s name, Ostravsky, was changed to Harris at the famed Ellis Island upon his parents’ arrival to the United States. His father’s job as a movie theater projectionist may have first ignited young Jack’s love of films, but both parents instilled in their son a strong work ethic that helped him not only survive but thrive in the wildly changing world of Hollywood.

Jack grew up to become a very successful producer-distributor in the film industry and was involved in nearly every phase of show business for over 80 years.

As a child, Jack performed professionally in vaudeville theaters along the Eastern seaboard, where he danced the adagio with his younger sister Clair. By the time he was nine, he appeared in two silent feature films–capturing hearts as a wide-eyed street urchin in his first film followed by a performance in Abie’s Irish Bride in the second. His early brush with entertainment created a burning desire in Jack that intensified throughout his teen years as he steadfastly strove towards his coveted goal: motion picture production.

Vaudeville embraces dancing duo Jack and sister, Claire, 1925.

As a young boy, Jack discovered a gift of art that complemented his love of movie stars. This evolved into his creation of caricatures of the famous big screen figures who passed through Philadelphia to perform. These included silent screen sweetheart, Mary Pickford, and other big screen legends of the time Eddie Cantor, George Burns and Gracie Allen. He even found time to caricature the future cigar-chomping U.S. President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Upon graduation from high school, Harris became an usher for a theater circuit, where he earned $10 per week.  Within one year, at the tender age of 18, he was promoted to theater manager. In two years’ time, he managed three theaters and his innate showmanship resulted in packed houses–drawing in young viewers who piled in for Uncle Jack’s Kiddie Show, the weekly bonus event Harris created. Within five years, he presided over 23 theaters and won a national exploitation contest that included a trip to Hollywood with an onset visit to Little Nellie Kelly, starring Judy Garland.

Officer Harris reporting for duty!!

Jack took a detour from the Hollywood scene to answer his country’s call by enlisting in the U.S. army as a private.  After 4½ years of dedicated service, he achieved a distinguished military record that led to a two-year stint in Washington, D.C. as an officer in Army Intelligence.

After returning to Philadelphia, Jack spent the next five years working as a publicity and sales representative for a variety of studios.  In 1953, he opened his own sub-distribution office in Philadelphia.  A Pittsburgh branch was opened a year later and, in 1955, another branch was added in Washington, D.C.

Career

After returning to Philadelphia, Jack spent the next five years working as a publicity and sales representative for a variety of studios.  In 1953, he opened his own sub-distribution office in Philadelphia.  A Pittsburgh branch was opened a year later and, in 1955, another branch was added in Washington, D.C.

The year 1954 marked a pivotal turning point for Jack and his career, when he acquired the rights to nationally distribute a feature film from the Boy Scouts of America entitled Jamboree.  To maximize distribution in the United States, Jack and Boy Scout executive, Irvine H. Milgate, teamed up to personally oversee the film’s distribution by traveling together throughout the U.S.–logging over 50,000 miles by plane.  During the long hours spent traveling, the two discussed the ingredients necessary for box office success–and in 1958, these discussions resulted in the eventual production of The Blob, a Paramount release which set box office records all over the world.

Perhaps it was no fluke that Jack was attracted to the sci-fi/horror genre. He possessed an eerie sixth sense and a keen eye when it came to discovering talent. It was in The Blob that Harris’ discovery, Steve McQueen, was first brought to the attention of the major studios as well as to a throng of adoring fans. And in 1959, Harris produced 4-D Man, which introduced stars Robert Lansing, Lee Meriwether and a very young Patty Duke.

(From Left to Right) Lee Meriwether, a scientist, and Jack searching for the 4th Dimension in Philadelphia observatory.

Jack’s uncanny ability to discover stars-in-the-making extended behind the camera as well. He gave rise to many young filmmakers who went on to enormously successful careers. This list includes Ivan Reitman directing My Secret Life and horror-meister George Romero, who directed Season of The Witch. And eight-time Academy Award winner, special effects wizard Dennis Muren, received his start in the 1970 cult classic Equinox, produced by Harris.

The star of A*P*E gives Jack a big smooch.

Discover more about the legendary Father of the Blob in Part Two of Jack H. Harris’ prolific profile, dropping in the next couple of weeks on the Blob Blog.