Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Dick Barrymore, pioneer filmmaker of action skiing, dies at 74

One of the last ski bums passes away in Ketchum

Express Staff Writer

Express file photo by Elaine Somerville Dick Barrymore relaxes in Ketchum in 1980 during a Mountain Express interview. He was promoting his new film, "20 Years of Skiing," which he described as "freestyle, travel, racing, aerials, the deep stuff and laughs." A headline on the published story was "Help Send Dick to Mexico."

Dick Barrymore, a pioneer in ski filmmaking who spent over 30 years shooting ski films around the world, died peacefully at home in Ketchum Aug. 1 from brain cancer. He was 74.

He began his career as a ski filmmaker at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., and spent the next three decades traveling from continent to continent. He rarely had a script in mind for his films. He took things as they came and was a master of improvisation.

Best known for his action ski films, Barrymore was first and foremost a man who loved to travel and enjoyed people. He developed the Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort in Mexico, which was a lifelong dream.

"I'm basically a travelogue teller and I just relate the story to skiing," Barrymore told the Idaho Mountain Express in a 1978 interview.

Barrymore's films included "The Last of the Ski Bums," "Wild Skis," "The Derby," and "A Bit of Madness." He was an early proponent of freestyle skiing. A ski magazine once described him as a rather delightful lunatic, to which Barrymore replied, "Yeah. Hey, I like that. I agree."

Among his star skiers in movies were locals Jim Stelling, Charlie McWilliams, Joey Cordeau, Matt Luhn, Dave Woodham, Alan Rickers, Scott Curtis and of course his son Blake Barrymore. He also filmed the wife of the Shah of Iran at a Tehran ski area.

Once you watched a Barrymore movie, there was no mistaking his talent behind the camera or ability to tell a story.

The world of skiing was fortunate to have him, Ketchum's Jim Stelling said Monday, because of Barrymore's "artistry as a cinematographer and as a storyteller."

Stelling, one of Baldy's best skiers and one of Barrymore's main skier subjects from 1969-80, said, "Sure, Dick liked to make money, but for him it was mainly the skiing life, the experiences and the stories.

"He would hold court at dinner, always entertaining, bringing up the same stories you heard the year before, only the next year you probably found yourself in the stories he told. For him it was the art of the tale."

In 2000 Barrymore was one of six inductees into the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame in Michigan. Along with fellow ski shriners and pioneer ski filmmakers John Jay and Warren Miller, Barrymore enticed viewers to try skiing and develop their love of the sport.

Like a successful restaurateur, Barrymore's success came from his involvement in every aspect of production. He did most of his own filming with hand-held cameras and was the sole editor. He narrated and selected the music. At one time he personally narrated 65 live shows a year in one-night stands around the United States.

From powder to projector, Barrymore was an integral part of his films. For his own self-esteem, Barrymore said he needed to know the action and be in the middle of things. He relied on his judgment.

Barrymore said, "After all, I am a skier. When someone asks me about a particular skier or cut, I want to be able to answer."

He recruited his skiers, not necessarily using the flashiest or most stylized skiers, but rather, in his words, someone who gets an "oh-my-God-Ethel-who-was-that?" kind of response from the audience. Barrymore, one of skiing's great raconteurs, projected his unique personality into each of his films.

Born in 1933 in California, Barrymore made his first voyage into filmmaking at 25 with "The Valley of the Lost Tribe," a Hawaiian adventure made with his family and surfing friends. He made $375 from the venture. The trip cost $1,800.

It was apparent from the start that Barrymore, terrific on the creative end, needed a business manager.

Originally his travelogue ski films were spin-offs of the Burton Holmes' travelogues designed for the armchair traveler. But his process matured and became more popular.

By the late 1970s, Barrymore was so well known that he was invited to ski with the Shah of Iran and his family. He filmed the Shah's wife, Empress Fara Dibba, skiing alongside famous U.S. skiers Suzy Chaffee and Billy Kidd in the Iran hills.

"The Shah paid all our expenses," Barrymore said while promoting his 1978 film "Wild Skis," which featured Iran skiing footage. "He had originally planned to ski with us, but he was busy either starting or stopping World War III so he couldn't make it."

An integral part of Barrymore Productions was his business partner and ex-wife Betsy Barrymore. The couple met in Aspen in 1968 where she was on the 8th Interski Team and working as a ski instructor. They bought a house in Sun Valley in 1969 and moved here permanently in 1972, basing their business here.

Years later, after the marriage broke up but their business relationship continued, Dick said, "Betsy has the business head. When we divorced, we both had half of everything. Now it's all hers again."

Listening to the comment, Betsy smiled and retorted, "I just tell Dick how much he has to play with. When he starts to run out I tell him he has to make another movie."

In 1969 Barrymore met Stelling, then-manager of the Ore House restaurant. The two men made a connection and developed a close friendship. At times they made two or three jaunts to the Canadian Rockies during a winter. They traveled together to Europe and back six or seven times for filming.

"One time, we stayed for a month in the Canadian Rockies, going between three or four different lodges," said Stelling. "It was like a dream come true, and we were getting paid for it and getting our expenses taken care of. I'm not sure we truly appreciated it until years later."

What Barrymore liked about Stelling's skiing was his ability to follow directions. Barrymore would line up the shot and explain it to Stelling, and Stelling would do precisely what was asked. "That way, we got to après ski earlier," said Stelling. "We had a great relationship."

Stelling said, "Dick was an excellent skier, such a good athlete. He would shoot his films with a pack on his back that weighed up to 100 pounds—everything he owned was in it. Every once in a while he had one of us young bucks pack the pack. I did once, and almost fell over it was so heavy. Don't know how he did it."

Barrymore wasn't adverse to appearing in his own films though he would never be a John Barrymore type of actor. The ski filmmaker and the famous actor weren't related.

In "Wild Skis," a speed cop for skiers named Buford Billingsley (played by McWilliams) chased runaway skiers on his "ski skipper." Barrymore played the part of Avalanche Al, intent on setting speed records of up to 320 mph while "riding" an avalanche.

His wanderlust always led Barrymore to his next film project. He said, 30 years ago, dreaming on as always, "In the works for the next movie is a take-off on dueling banjos which I'll call dueling skis. I'll film it in Sun Valley, and it will be a classic confrontation between short skis and long skis."

Barrymore is survived by his mother, Blanche Barrymore, who'll be 97 on Aug. 17. She lives at Andora Villa in Ketchum. His brother Douglas passed away in 1987, but Dick's nephew Alexander Barrymore lives in New York City and works there as a photographer.

Dick's sons are Blake Barrymore of Hailey and Cole Barrymore of Cabo Pulmo, Mexico. His first wife and mother of his sons, Sandra Wells, lives in Sunset Beach, Calif.

Blake Barrymore is president of Valley Millworks based in Carey. He and his wife Debbie have two sons, Tai, 16, a Wood River High School student, and 13-year-old Chloe, a Wood River Middle School eighth-grade student.

Cole Barrymore and wife Maribel have two children, Jordan and Marbella. Blake's half-sister Shawna Ward and her husband Eric live in Hailey with their four children.

A private family service will be held Thursday, Aug. 7, and a public celebration of Barrymore's life is scheduled for Oct. 21 in Ketchum.

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