Nathan Juran gazes out the broad windows of his hillside home in Southern California, where his 1941 Oscar statuette serves as a doorstop, and says his life has been a fun journey.
This MIT alumnus, now 90 years old, rose from a humble immigrant background to became the successful director of movies like Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Hellcats of the Navy and TV shows like Lost in Space and Daniel Boone.
“I had a rough beginning,” says this Hollywood veteran who grew up the son of an immigrant shoemaker in Minneapolis. Homeless from the age of 13, Juran worked odd jobs and slept on a classmate’s porch throughout high school.
Now he looks back over the years with a sense of satisfaction. “I’ve lived an interesting life,” he says.
Began as architect
Juran began his career as an architect in New York City during the Depression. He was earning $100 a week as chief designer at Sugarman and Berger when he was offered the chance to get a master’s degree at MIT.
“I traded my good fortune for the scholarship,” he says. “I went to Boston to live in a garret on a diet of rye bread and cream cheese which I kept refrigerated on the sill outside the school window.”
After MIT he moved to California and got his first Hollywood break when RKO Studios needed a drawing of the Brooklyn Bridge from which to build a miniature. “Who better than a young architect from New York City?” he says, adding that he had never been within six blocks of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Juran’s movie career blossomed into set design and art direction, and he worked on films like Romeo and Juliet, The Razor’s Edge, and How Green Was My Valley. “My architectural and engineering training came into play at last,” he says, describing how he transformed a ranch in Malibu into a Welsh mining town for How Green Was My Valley. “Night after night I worked into the wee hours fitting the Welsh village into the contours of the site.”
His diligence won him the Academy Award for art direction in 1941. “It wasn’t until then that I realized what a giant leap I had made from draftsman to art director of the studio’s most prestigious film in such a short time span.”
Although Juran’s movie career was interrupted during the war years, when he served in the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) as a field photographer, he returned to Hollywood and soon had the chance to direct.
“The director is the CEO of the whole operation,” he says, explaining why the director’s job is the most coveted in Hollywood. “The cameraman, the sound man, and everyone else on the crew is there to help the director.”
At Universal Studios, Juran directed legendary actors like Boris Karloff (“A joy,”) Audie Murphy (“I had great respect for him as a war hero,”) Rock Hudson (“The easy smile came naturally to him,”) and Ronald Reagan (“A wonderful guy.”)
Eventually, Juran made a specialty of directing science fiction and fantasy movies like Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and First Men in the Moon. “A science fiction film must be based on scientific fact and be plausible and convincing,” he says, adding that he often corrected logical gaps in the scripts.
Juran also specialized in low-budget films, which he says held a special fascination for him. “The challenge of producing a credible result with very little money is a real test of creativity not only for the director, but for the rest of the crew as well,” he says. “There was always the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles with mirrors, smoke, and ingenuity.”
Move to television
In the 1960s, Juran’s directing work gradually evolved from motion pictures to television series like Lost in Space, My Friend Flicka, and Time Tunnel. He directed the Daniel Boone series for three years, and although he says they were the best three years of his life, the stress of 40 years in Hollywood were about to catch up with him.
“Movies are always glamorous to hear about,” he says. “But if you’ve been in the movie business, the glamor is gone. It’s hard work.”
Although he retired from directing and returned to architecture in 1970, Juran still has the movies in his blood. His latest project is a how-to book on directing low-budget films.
“There is an entrepreneurial stimulus at work in the low-budget field,” he says. “You work harder for longer hours, but there is always the chance that maybe, just maybe — against all odds — you can salvage a sure loser.”
Overcoming long odds to make something out of nothing has been the story of Juran’s life. “Friends tell me I lived the ‘American Dream,'” he says. “I suppose in a sense that’s true. But it wasn’t the result of some Herculean effort on my part — it came easily and naturally. It was a piece of cake.”