2012-11-08 / On the Town

Creator of horror cult classic leaves behind lasting legacy

By Stephanie Sumell

FRIEND TO THE STARS—Bob Munger, left, visits with actors Karl Malden, Lee Remick and Jack Warden during a 1970sfilm production. Munger died in Woodland Hills last month after suffering a stroke. 
Courtesy of Grace Munger FRIEND TO THE STARS—Bob Munger, left, visits with actors Karl Malden, Lee Remick and Jack Warden during a 1970sfilm production. Munger died in Woodland Hills last month after suffering a stroke. Courtesy of Grace Munger The mastermind behind the 1976 horror film “The Omen,” longtime Conejo Valley resident Bob Munger wasn’t shy about the movie’s intent.

“He wanted to scare the hell out of people,” said Grace Munger, his wife of 43 years.

“He wanted people to know what the Bible said about the Antichrist.”

“The Omen,” starring Gregory Peck and considered by many to be a cult classic, is just part of the legacy Bob Munger left behind when he died last month at the age of 81.

A successful entrepreneur, devout Christian and passionate politico, Munger died at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Woodland Hills on Oct. 8, shortly after suffering a stroke.

Grace and Bob Munger Grace and Bob Munger “He was a brilliant, fascinating man,” his wife said. “Very versatile.”

Jack of all trades

After finding success as a child actor in Indianapolis, Munger moved to Hollywood in the 1940s with his mother, Helen Munger. There, he graduated from Hollywood High School and acted in a television series that was never picked up, Grace said.

Putting aside his acting dreams, Munger set his sights on a career in law, attending Los Angeles City College and Pepperdine University before graduating from USC, where he founded Students for America, a student-led, conservative political group that rallied behind Republican candidates.

During his college years, Munger earned his stripes as a national debate champion and first-class chess player—often playing more than one opponent at a time.

“He claimed that he could be blindfolded and play, but I never saw anything like that,” Grace said of her husband, who wrote speeches for Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 1964.

After college, the aspiring lawyer’s path changed yet again.

He served as an infantryman in World War II before pursuing a job in publicity, eventually heading a successful agency called Rollman and Munger Advertising.

In 1969, Munger fell for his future wife, a runaway rehabilitation volunteer and speech therapist working in Los Angeles.

Accustomed to dating actress wannabes, Munger had met his match.

“I told him, ‘I want to be a wife and mother,’” said Grace, who sang in a Christian rock group at the time.

And as it turned out, Munger also wanted a family.

At 38, the bachelor proposed after just two weeks of dating.

“He wanted me to look at houses with him in the Hollywood Hills,” Grace said. “He said, ‘I thought the whole thing over, and I think we should be married.’ Two and a half months later, we were.”

In their 43-year union, the couple had four children: Robert, Melodee (Harmon), Joy

(Weirick) and Mark.

“We had a good marriage,” Grace said. “It was a wild ride.”

Lucky in love and in business, Munger, through his agency, helped promote a film called “The Hiding Place” in 1975.

Distributed by World Wide Pictures, evangelist Billy Graham’s production company, the film told the story of Corrie ten Boom, who during World War II hid Jews in a secret room in an effort to keep them from being sent to Nazi concentration camps.

Three years later, Munger promoted “Born Again,” a film depicting Charles Colson’s involvement in the Watergate scandal and his subsequent conversion to Christianity.

‘The Omen’

In the early ’70s, Munger took his idea for “The Omen” to Harvey Bernhard, a successful television producer.

“Bob got the idea from reading the Bible,” Grace said. “He thought it would make a really good movie.”

“The Omen” is the story of the Antichrist taking the form of a child. Bernhard helped bring Munger’s vision to the big screen.

The film starred the American actor Gregory Peck, who won an Oscar for his role as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Accustomed to meaty roles, Peck played Robert Thorn, who is bewildered by a series of events involving his son Damien.

At one point in the film, Damien’s nanny publicly hangs herself at his 5th birthday party.

With its suspenseful story line, shocking visuals and themes of good and evil, the film was a hit.

Ted Baehr, the founder of family-friendly movie-screening site Movieguide, called Munger a “brilliant strategist.”

“(He) wanted to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ in a creative way,” Baehr said. “‘The Omen’ was his answer to doing that.”

The film grossed more than $4 million in its opening weekend, a huge number in those days.

Grace said the public’s feedback was “phenomenal.”

“At the premier there was a line around the block,” she said.

Later years

Munger’s combination of business smarts and creativity brought him into a variety of circles, Grace said.

A descendent of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, the staunch Republican had a variety of high-profile house guests, including Ruth Carter Stapleton, an evangelist, and Larry Flynt, the infamous creator of Hustler magazine, Grace said.

“Bob wanted Larry to change his ways,” she said. “He came to his one and only Bible study at our house.”

A member of Calvary Community Church for more than 20 years, Munger let his faith in God guide his decisions.

“He was not tied to any particular sect,” Grace said. “And he didn’t like phony Christians.”

After moving to Westlake Village in 1986, the semiretired entrepreneur kept a full plate starting and selling companies and producing television shows.

“He did things almost for fun,” Grace said. “He didn’t have a single profession.”

A true Renaissance man, Munger had a flair for theatrics, even in the most trying of times.

After open-heart surgery, which Munger called his “grand opening,” he suffered a series of complications, most notably a stroke on Oct. 4.

Grace said he took care of himself “till the very end.”

“We brought his shaver to the hospital,” she said with a laugh. “He couldn’t talk, but he took the shaver and started shaving.”

Four days later, Munger died in the company of his family on the same day his seventh grandchild, Gunner Lee Munger, was born.

“My daughter Joy recorded Gunner’s cries and brought them to Bob,” Grace said. “He listened to the cries, took one last breath and was gone. . . . It was a divine exchange.”

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