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SYFY WIRE Planet of the Apes

William J. Creber, art director of iconic 1960s Planet of the Apes films, dies age 87

By Alexis Sottile

Three-time Oscar-nominated production designer and art director William J. Creber died this past Thursday in Los Angeles, his publicist announced. The designer of some of the most iconic sci-fi and action films of the '60s and '70s, including Irwin Allen classics The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, Creber was 87 when he died this past week due to complications of pneumonia.

The son of Fox studios art director Lewis Creber, who himself worked on all nine seasons of TV's Perry Mason, among other titles, the junior Creber got his start at Fox in the 1950s after returning to the States from a U.S. Naval enlistment lasting four years.

His first Oscar nomination came for his work on 1965's biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told, a film for which Creber became art director due to a lucky break: The film's original art director quit. As reported by The Hollywood Reporter, this film set him up well for a lead design role on the first Planet of the Apes in 1968, as Planet of the Apes director Franklin Schaffner reportedly told Creber he was a prime choice for the futuristic classic since it was to be shot in the same desert canyon as his previous standout film. Creber went on to serve as artistic director for the next two Planet of the Apes films as well (1970's Beneath the Planet of the Apes and 1971's Escape From the Planet of the Apes), making him responsible for the look and feel of three out of the five original films.

But there has to be a morning after desert films, and Creber's equally huge role in the Hollywood canon was as production designer for the one-two punch of Irwin Allen's couplet of iconic 1970s disaster films: 1972's The Poseidon Adventure and 1974's The Towering Inferno. No one who has ever seen the former's sideways cruise ship descend into the sea could look upon Creber's production design with anything but awe for what the designer achieved in real time and in camera, in a pre-CGI world where a sinking cruise ship had to look like a sinking cruise ship with no help from digitization whatsoever. His work on the subsequent Towering Inferno was just as fraught with claustrophobic tension and maximized drama drawn from the environment.

still from The Poseidon Adventure

Creber, who had a long career in both film and television work (he was nominated for an Emmy for yet another Irwin Allen collaboration), went on to receive the Richard Sylbert Outstanding Achievement in Production Design Award in 2003 and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Art Directors Guild in 2005. He even, in a twist of irony befitting any of the disaster survival movies he helped create, broke the fourth wall and helped redesign the Universal Studios backlot itself after it was damaged in a fire.