It looked like some kind of morbid cosmic sign. As the mourners walked down Main Street, an improbably named alley cutting between the imposing soundstages of the Columbia lot, they came upon a three-man camera crew tilting their lens toward the ground. The focus of their attention: a dead dog sprawled across the curb. It was a prop for some TV movie, surely, but to those who were grieving for production designer Anton Furst, one of Hollywood’s most gifted illusionists, it was macabre, sad and goofy, pointless, ugly.
No one may ever know exactly why Furst, who made his mark with his brooding, fantastic designs for Batman, jumped to his death from the eighth floor of a Los Angeles garage at age 47. But Furst, a man who always lived life recklessly, had been under strain. Depressed in the wake of his second divorce, he had also been getting treatment for alcohol and drug abuse at a local rehab center.
Furst was a charismatic Englishman who started out by designing light shows for the Who rock band’s mid-’70s tours. After creating laser effects for such films as Star Wars, Alien, and Moonraker, he established himself as an outstanding production designer on the strength of four movies — The Company of Wolves, —Full Metal Jacket, Awakenings, and Batman, for which he shared an Oscar for Best Art Direction with set decorator Peter Young. Recently he created the decor of the trendy new restaurant Planet Hollywood, and he was planning to work on Midknight, a fantasy film to star Michael Jackson.
And suddenly he was gone. The gathering to remember him was small, but it included Awakenings director Penny Marshall, Batman producer Jon Peters, Columbia Pictures chairman Mark Canton, Furst’s first wife, Jane Furst, and their daughter, Vanessa Furst King, 26. They clustered inside Columbia’s drably curtained Cary Grant Theatre, crying and hugging each other. A hammering outside, the sound of a new set being born, stopped for the service.
At the ceremony, Penny Marshall tried to make some sense of his death. She said she was dumbfounded when she saw Furst’s work on Batman. She was dumbfounded again when they met for Awakenings, and finally dumbfounded when she learned he had killed himself. ”He was a perplexing man,” she said.
After the ceremony, the mourners shuffled back across Main Street to Marshall’s office, which Furst designed. Unlike Batman’s gloom, it is a happy fantasy space decorated in off-white, burgundy, and sea green. It seems to belong to a Hollywood of more glamorous times, when movies were always supposed to have happy endings. Inevitably, the conversation went from talk of Furst to the more mundane matters of movies and dealmaking. After a few minutes, there was scattered laughter. And the sounds of set construction picked up again as the morning faded into afternoon.