LOS ANGELES — – His films explored everything from racism to war crimes, nuclear holocaust to social ostracism. Yet Stanley Kramer always shunned the title "message movie."
"He never thought he was a message filmmaker; just a man who believed very strongly in social conscience issues," said Karen Sharpe Kramer, the producer-director's wife of 35 years.
Kramer, whose nearly three dozen films included such classics as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Judgment at Nuremberg and Inherit the Wind, died Monday at the Motion Picture & Television Hospital in Woodland Hills. He was 87 and had been ill with pneumonia,
One of his most famous films, High Noon, portrayed a man standing up to evil while others in his community cowered in the shadows. Kramer's wife said such behavior typified her husband as well.
"What epitomized Stanley Kramer as a man and a father and as a filmmaker was that line from Judgment at Nuremberg, which is, `Let it be known this is what we stand for: Truth, justice and the value of a single human being,"' she said.
In the 1950s and '60s, Kramer explored such issues as race in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and The Defiant Ones, Nazi war crimes in Judgment at Nuremberg, fundamentalism vs. modern science in Inherit the Wind and nuclear holocaust in On the Beach.
"He stood for things that nobody else ever stood for in those days," his wife said.
Despite that, Kramer insisted he didn't want to be known as simply a "message director" — and among his peers he was remembered as much more.
"Stanley Kramer is one of our great filmmakers, not just for the art and passion he put on-screen, but for the impact he has made on the conscience of the world," director Steven Spielberg once said.
While none of his films won the Oscar for best picture, a number were nominated: High Noon, The Caine Mutiny, The Defiant Ones, Judgment at Nuremberg, Ship of Fools and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
Kramer was nominated as best director three times, and in 1962 was presented the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for outstanding work. He also received the Producers Guild of America's David O. Selznick Life Achievement Award.
In all, his films drew 80 nominations and 16 Oscars. Three — High Noon, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World — made the American Film Institute's list of 100 best movies of all time.
Stanley Earl Kramer was born in New York City on Sept. 29, 1913, and grew up in Manhattan's tough Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, later attending New York University.
He broke into the movie business in the 1930s as a researcher, editor and writer before leaving for military service in World War II. His first film, So This is New York, was released in 1948.
Champion, which came out a year later, made a star of Kirk Douglas, just as 1954's The Wild One launched Marlon Brando's career.
They were two of a veritable Who's Who of Hollywood stars who appeared in Kramer's pictures.
Others included Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and Vivian Leigh.
"He was a serious director," Gregory Peck, who starred in On the Beach, once said. "He kept trying. Sometimes he failed, but now and then he hit, and he made a difference."
But not all of Kramer's subject matter was heavy.
He made a foray into comedy on a grand scale with It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in 1963.
The film about a madcap race for buried treasure ran more than three hours, and the cast included such comic heavyweights as Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, Buster Keaton, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Terry Thomas, Buddy Hackett, Jimmy Durante, Zasu Pitts and Jonathan Winters.
Kramer called it "the happiest experience I had with a film."
Behind the camera, Kramer also put his ideals to work, hiring blacklisted writers such as Ned Young, who used the pseudonym Nathan E. Douglas and won an Oscar for his work on The Defiant Ones and a nomination for Inherit the Wind.
New York Times critic Bosley Crowther once wrote that not all of Kramer's films — he produced 20 and directed 15 — were works of art, but that he compiled "an excellent record of forceful films on vital themes."
Not everyone was as generous. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael complained of Kramer's "self-righteous, self-congratulatory tone," while some critics said his idealism and the sheer length of some of his films detracted from the art.
His last picture, The Runner Stumbles, starring Dick Van Dyke as a Catholic priest who falls in love with a nun, was released in 1979.
Besides his wife, Kramer is survived by daughters Katharine, Jennifer and Casey, and his son, Larry.