LOS ANGELES (AP) — A.C. Lyles, who rose from mail boy to producer at Paramount Pictures and became the studio's longest-serving employee during a tenure that lasted more than three-quarters of a century, has died at age 95.
Lyles, whose most recent title with Paramount was ambassador of goodwill, died Friday at his Los Angeles home, longtime family friend Ben Wheeler told The Associated Press on Monday.
Lyles was just 18 when the lifelong movie fan arrived in Hollywood from his native Florida, going to work in Paramount's mailroom in 1937. There, as the person who delivered fan letters, the outgoing Lyles became friendly with most of the major stars of the era, including Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour and William Holden.
"He was extremely close with Jimmy Cagney and Ronald Reagan," Wheeler recalled.
His celebrity contacts would become invaluable when Lyles started producing such Westerns as "The Young and the Brave," ''Stage to Thunder Rock," ''Apache Uprising" and "Johnny Reno" in the 1960s.
He persuaded friends such as Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Jane Russell, Pat O'Brien and Dana Andrews to appear in his films, even talking Cagney into directing one of them, the gangster movie, "Short Cut to Hell."
It marked Cagney's only directing effort, and Lyles remarked years later, "I don't think he liked telling actors what to do."
Studio executives had recognized Lyles' breezy manner years earlier and promoted him to the publicity department.
Soon he was named publicity chief for Pine-Thomas, Paramount's B-picture arm. The studio was named for Bill Pine and Bill Thomas, dubbed the "Dollar Bills" for their skill at making movies on the skimpiest of budgets.
After Pine-Thomas folded in the 1950s, Lyles convinced Paramount's bosses he could produce salable films with well-known if slightly faded stars on budgets the Dollar Bills had taught him how to squeeze.
Other production credits included "Law of the Lawless," ''Young Fury," ''Red Tomahawk," ''Arizona Bushwhackers," ''Fort Utah" and "Hostile Guns."
He was also credited as associate producer on nine episodes of the hit TV series "Rawhide."
His last producer credit was for the 2005-2006 HBO Western series "Deadwood."
As Paramount's ambassador of goodwill, Lyles appeared regularly in his later years at film festivals, colleges and nostalgia conventions to talk about the studio's legacy and its current products. He also welcomed visiting notables to the studio and conducted tours of the Paramount lot, which he knew intimately.
Reagan's widow, former first lady Nancy Reagan, said in a statement that she was deeply saddened to learn of Lyles' death, calling him "a studio legend in every sense of the word." He had kept in touch with her and her family over the years, Reagan said, serving on the White House Advisory Council on Private Sector Initiatives when her husband was president.
"I will miss him and his colorful — and truly memorable — stories of Hollywood in her heyday," she said.
Lyles worked well into his 90s, operating out of a suite once occupied by Fred Astaire and bedecked with scores of photographs of the many stars Lyles had been friends with. It was only in the past year, Wheeler said, that he stopped going to the office regularly.
Until then he would leave home for the office every weekday morning, dressed in a custom-made suit with handkerchief in the breast pocket. He would arrive at the studio in his mint-condition 1955 Ford Thunderbird.
"I love my job," he said in a 1998 interview. "If the studio was open on Saturday and Sunday, I'd be there on those days, too."
Lyles figured he actually went to work for Paramount at age 9 when he was hired to distribute handbills and bumper stickers for the company's theater in his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. He left for Hollywood as soon he graduated from high school.
"I left on the day coach with two loaves of bread, some peanut butter, a bag of apples and $48 in my pocket," he recalled in the 1998 interview.
Throughout his life, Lyles went just by the initials A.C., explaining that was the name his father had used as well. It was an old Southern tradition, he said, to just use initials rather than a full name.
The full name, Wheeler said, was Andrew Craddock Lyles.
Lyles was married to Martha French in 1955, in a ceremony attended by Reagan and Cagney, among others.
He is survived by her.
Former Associated Press Entertainment Writer Bob Thomas contributed to this story.