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Mort Engelberg, ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ Producer Who Worked on Bill Clinton’s Presidential Campaigns, Dies at 86

Mort Engelberg, who was a producer on films including Smokey and the Bandit and The Big Easy before transitioning into politics as an “advance man” for Bill Clinton and other presidential candidates, died Saturday in Los Angeles of natural causes. He was 86.

“He was a wonderful person, a wonderful husband. He loved the movie business, and he loved his work with President Clinton,” his wife, Helaine Blatt, told The Hollywood Reporter. “He told the best stories of anyone I ever met, the best jokes.”

Born and raised in Memphis, Engelberg graduated from the University of Illinois and then spent a year working on a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri. He left school before completing that degree and worked as a journalist for a few years before moving to Washington in 1961 to work for Sargent Shriver, the director of the then-newly formed Peace Corps, and later followed Shriver to the Office of Economic Opportunity, the headquarters of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.

But when the Vietnam War began pulling funding away from Johnson’s programs, Engelberg left politics, relocated to New York and landed a job at MGM in 1967. He moved on to United Artists, where he assisted on multiple James Bond films. The studio later transferred him its Los Angeles office, where he worked as assistant to the president of production.

Engelberg eventually moved into a producing role, where he worked on the Smokey films, starring Burt Reynolds, 1986’s The Big Easy, starring Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin, along with Steve McQueen starrer The Hunter (1980).

His other credits include 1985’s The Heavenly Kid; the 1979 Dom DeLuise comedy ‘Hot Stuff’; 1987’s Maid to Order and Three for the Road; and 1988’s Fright Night Part 2. He was an exec producer on 1988’s Remote Control and There Goes the Neighborhood, which was his last film.

In 1984, he turned to politics in a big way, volunteering as the advance man — someone who handles publicity for political candidates, scouting locations for campaign stops, generating big crowds and making sure events go off without a hitch — for Walter Mondale’s presidential run in 1984 and again for Michael Dukakis’ presidential bid in 1988.

While neither won their campaigns, in 1991, Engelberg again volunteered as an advance man, this time for then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, which he would go on to win. He continued working with Clinton on his second presidential campaign as well as post-presidency.

“He traveled a lot with Clinton; he loved that man,” Blatt said, pointing out that he never took any money for his work on the campaigns. “He always volunteered. He always said, ‘They can’t fire me.’”

In 1992, he was asked why he made the switch from filmmaking to devote himself to the grueling schedule of a political campaign. He told The Los Angeles Times that he found the work “therapeutic” and a “wonderful relief” from the entertainment industry.

“For one thing, it’s not entirely altruistic,” he said. “L.A. is a one-industry town, and everything here is ‘how did your picture do’ or ‘how did your friend’s picture do’ or ‘are you gonna make this deal or that deal?’ You have one constituent in the movie business and that’s yourself. Whereas in politics — and I know this sounds pretentious — but politics is about something. Picking the next president, that’s a pretty important thing.”

Years later, he was asked again about his role in politics, noting how much he enjoyed his work.

“It’s a big responsibility, but it’s an awful lot of fun,”  Engelberg told The New York Times in 2016. “It’s something I have really come to love over the years.”

Until his death, Engelberg told anyone who asked about retirement that he wasn’t retired: “He would say he was a producer,” Blatt said, noting his love for Hollywood.

In 2016, he married Blatt, his longtime love, after 26 years of dating, when he was 79. “On my 75th birthday, I convinced him to marry me. He said, ‘OK, we’ll get married, but no wedding.’ It was a tiny little thing, a party with all my girlfriends,” she reminisced fondly.

The couple had no children. In addition to Blatt, Engelberg is survived by his brother and “best friend,” Steve Engelberg; a niece, Liza Pahlberg; and a nephew, Danny Engelberg.

Borys Kit contributed to this report.

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