George Lefont, who brought independent and classic cinema to the Atlanta masses, has died from complications related to Parkinson’s disease, his family said Tuesday.
He was 85.
“He constantly told me that life imitates art,” said Mimi Bean, Lefont’s third wife in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Any time something happened, he’d say, ‘That was like that Woody Allen film. Or ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’.”
“His life was truly like a movie,” added Donna Lefont, his fourth wife who was married to him for 11 years. “He always did it his way.”
Lefont, who loved to dress in tuxedoes and sharp Italian suits, owned nine different theaters in metro Atlanta over a span of 41 years including surviving ones like the Plaza, the Tara and Sandy Springs as well as former ones in Toco Hills, Garden Hills and Ansley Mall.
Lefont provided Atlantans access to old-time films long before Turner Classic Movies, DVDs and streaming and gave independent and foreign films a place to shine when major chains were more focused on the latest shoot’em up or sci-fi flick.
Ringel said Lefont was not just an inveterate cinephile but a shrewd businessman who was willing to show “Jaws III” so he could afford to also offer up a niche drama like “Paris, Texas” starring Harry Dean Stanton. But he said he didn’t compromise his own instincts.
“It’s rare that I’ve seen a film that I’ve absolutely loved and said to myself, ‘I can’t play that because it won’t do business’,” he told Ringel in 1985. “If I love it, I go for it.”
A San Francisco area native, he developed a love of cinema while attending the University of California at Berkeley.
An accountant by trade for many years, he owned a computer software company in the early 1970s when computers took up entire rooms and pumped out punch cards. After he sold the computer company, he decided to buy a movie theater: The Silver Screen at Peachtree Battle Shopping Center in 1976. He began showing double-feature classic films there, holding film festivals and special screenings.
“I was looking for something new to go into,” Lefont told The Atlanta Constitution in 1980. “I had always been a film buff and felt that Atlanta could support a house like this... I got nothing but negative comments, but I went ahead anyway.”
Claudia Sickler, who dated him briefly and was his first employee at The Silver Screen in 1976, said he was not a man racked with self doubt. “It was amazing how fearless he was,” she said. “I never heard a moment of hesitation in what he was going to do.”
To promote The Silver Screen, he hired Michael Parver, a well-respected Atlanta-based entertainment PR exec, who helped him design newspaper ads for classic films by literally cutting out photos from books about old movies. “He absolutely loved Humphrey Bogart,” Parver said. “He admired Bogart’s masculinity and constant strength.” On opening day at Silver Screen, Lefont screened the 1943 classic “Casablanca” and dressed up in a white tuxedo like Bogart in the movie.
Two years later, Lefont opened The Screening Room at Lindbergh Plaza in what had been the Great Southeast Music Hall, where the Sex Pistols had just played. He also hosted midnight showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at The Silver Screen.
In 1980, he purchased the Tara Cinema and turned it into a theater focused on foreign and independent films. He knew this formula was working when “Chariots of Fire” took off and screened for 16 weeks. When the movie won the best picture Oscar in early 1982, Lefont fainted at his annual Oscar party. “My guests came by like a receiving line to where I was lying on the floor to congratulate me,” he told Atlanta magazine in 2018.
He then scooped up the Plaza Theatre, previously an X-rated movie house in Poncey-Highland and made that an arthouse as well.
He also got himself in trouble when he showed erotic films “Caligula” and “The Story of O.” State authorities in 1982 raided The Screening Room and seized “The Story of O,” saying Lefont violated the state’s obscenity laws. A jury ultimately decided in Lefont’s favor.
Over the years, Lefont rubbed shoulders with the likes of Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman and Spike Lee.
In early 1985, Prince was performing at the Omni and loved Mozart so much he rented out the Tara to screen the film “Amadeus” with his band during the height of “Purple Rain” madness. “George and I watched it with him and Morris Day,” said Lefont’s third wife Mimi Bean, but she didn’t recall Lefont fanboying in any way: “George was cool as a cucumber around celebs.”
By 1987, he owned 31 screens in seven different locations. For a brief time, he merged his operations with a Boston company and owned the Landmark’s Midtown Art Cinema. At the time, he reassured AJC’s Ringel that nothing would change: “If my theaters start showing nothing but Shelley Long movies or movies with numbers in the title, then you should come looking for me. And you probably won’t find me because I’ll be in the cemetery.”
He also dabbled in restaurants by owning the chic eatery Coach & Six for a few years with his then wife Bean, a chef. “It was like the Sardi’s of Atlanta,” said Parver, referencing the storied New York restaurant. “Important people went there to see and be seen.”
Credit: ARTHUR USHERSON
Credit: ARTHUR USHERSON
Donna Lefont, his fourth wife, said Lefont’s life was a bit like the 1977 French movie and its 1983 Burt Reynolds remake “The Man Who Loved Women.” (He was a true Francophile, she said.) At parties, she would run into various women who had previously dated him. “They’d say, ‘I’ve known George longer than you and I’d say, ‘I’m sure you do!’” she said. “It would crack me up.”
“No matter where he went,” she added, “he was his own little celebrity.”
Credit: Jamie Gumbrecht
Credit: Jamie Gumbrecht
As Lefont got older, he found other interests. In his 40s, he began mountain climbing and at age 64 in 2002, he scaled Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. He regularly ran the AJC Peachtree Road Race. He also enjoyed quail and pheasant hunting and fly fishing. “He was full of adventure,” Donna Lefont said.
The movie theater business only got tougher in the 1990s with the rising power of the multiplex chains and the dominance of Blockbuster. He began selling off his theaters one by one. His final run was at a Sandy Springs theater that felt so dated the 1980s-themed Netflix show “Stranger Things” shot inside of it.
By the time Lefont retired in 2017, he was truly ready to call it quits and sold the theater to Brandt Gully. “He was worn out,” Donna Lefont said. He did book-end his time as a theater owner by airing “Casablanca” one last time.
Credit: DONNA LEFONT
Credit: DONNA LEFONT
Christopher Escobar, who now owns both the Plaza and Tara cinemas, said Lefont is an inspiration to him and other independent theater owners. To honor him, Escobar named screens inside both theaters after Lefont.
Regal Cinema shut down the Tara last November and its future looked bleak until Escobar gathered multiple investors to reopen it. Bean said when she informed the ailing Lefont, he told her, “That’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time.”
Lefont is survived by his three daughters Stacey, Paige and Audrey. A celebration of life is set at the Plaza at noon Saturday, Sept. 23.
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.