Spyros Skouras was a motion picture pioneer and movie executive who was the president of the 20th Century Fox from 1942 to 1962. He resigned June 27, 1962, but served as chairman of the company for several years. He also had numerous ships, owning Prudential Lines.
Spyros kept such a pronounced Greek accent in English that comedian Bob Hope would joke “Spyros has been here twenty years but he still sounds as if he’s coming next week.” Skouras oversaw the production of such epics as Cleopatra (1963) with Elizabeth Taylor, as well as the development of Century City.
The life of movie magnate Spyros P. Skouras is a classic rag to riches tale. Born in Skourohori, Greece on March 28, 1893, the son of an impoverished shepherd and one of ten children, Skouras came to the U.S. with his brothers, Charles and George, in 1910.
Landing in St. Louis, the trio worked in a large hotel as busboys and sold newspapers until they were able to scrape together 4,000 dollars to invest in part of a local movie house. In short order, the financially astute brothers owned every movie theater in St. Louis. They sold them all to Warner Bros. in the late ’20s, and Skouras was hired to manage all of the company’s exhibition houses. Between 1930 and 1932, Skouras worked with Paramount but left to save the Fox Metropolitan chain from destruction.
In May 1935 Spyros Skouras took the initiative for the merge of Fox with Twentieth Century Pictures. He served as president of the merged company 20th Century Fox from 1942 to 1962. Skouras was also a major stockholder of 20th Century Fox.
In the 1950s he, together with his brothers, controlled 20th Century Fox, National Theaters, Fox West Coast Theaters, United Artists Theaters, Skouras Theaters, Magna Corp, and Todd AO. Skouras’ assets in 1952 amounted to $108,000,000, greater than any other theater or movie mogul, including the Schencks, Warners, Shuberts, or his countryman Alexander Pantages.
Skouras oversaw the production of such classics as Don’t Bother to Knock, The Seven Year Itch, The Hustler, The King and I, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Robe. He signed a young model named Norma Jean Baker to 20th Century Fox who, after changing her name to Marilyn Monroe, rose to fame as the most famous Hollywood sex symbol of the 20th century. Monroe, who never knew her father, developed a special relationship with Skouras, and sometimes called him “Papa Skouras”.
During Skouras’ tenure, the longest in the company’s history, he worked to rescue the faltering movie industry from the lure of television. 20th Century Fox’s advertising slogan, Movies are Better than Ever, gained credibility in 1953 when Spyros introduced CinemaScope in the studio’s groundbreaking feature film The Robe. The widescreen CinemaScope increased the appeal of movies, helping them maintain audiences against television. This new technology soon became the standard of the whole industry.
His heretofore distinguished career with Fox abruptly nose-dived in 1963 with the disastrous release of Cleopatra, the big-budget epic starring Rex Harrison, Elizabeth Taylor, and Richard Burton. The film’s box-office failure spelled ruination for the financially beleaguered Fox and Skouras was one of the prime scapegoats for the fiasco. As a result, he was assigned as the company’s board chairman and his control over films was largely taken away. He remained in that position in 1969 when he left to tend to his other enormous investments that included his own shipping line.
Spyros Skouras died in New York on August 16, 1971.