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A Look At The Man Who Started 21st Century Fox

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Walt Disney Company is planning to buy much of 21st Century Fox, the entertainment giant controlled by Rupert Murdoch and his family, for $52 billion. The purchase does not include Fox News, and it still needs approval of regulators. The sale of 21st Century Fox, which used to be 20th Century Fox, to Disney raises this question. We know who Walt Disney was, and we know what the 20th century was. So who was Fox? Well, for the answer to that question, we turn to Vanda Krefft, who's the author of a new biography "The Man Who Made The Movies: The Meteoric Rise And Tragic Fall Of William Fox." Welcome to the program.

VANDA KREFFT: Thank you very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: Who was William Fox?

KREFFT: William Fox was the founder of the Fox Film Corporation, which was the forerunner of 20th Century Fox. And he founded Fox Film in 1915.

SIEGEL: Tell us a little bit about him. His family had been named Fuchs. They're Hungarian Jewish immigrants. Is that right? And the name Fox came along with entry into the U.S.

KREFFT: Yes, that's correct. The family came over in 1879. And William Fox was the eldest son. He was at that point only 9 months old. So he was raised entirely in the United States on the Lower East Side of New York in really horrible conditions in the slums. But William Fox was extremely ambitious from an early age. He always saw himself as doing something great. Initially he was in the clothing business. And then he was frustrated by the lack of opportunity to rise to the very top in that industry, and that led him into the fledgling motion picture industry.

SIEGEL: So what was the moment that inspired this man in the garment business in New York to go into what had to have been a fledgling industry of movies?

KREFFT: Well, he was walking along 14th Street in New York City and saw crowds forming outside the Automatic Vaudeville Company, which was an arcade with various amusement machines. And he thought, well, that looks like a good sideline business. And that was the moment when he decided to go into the entertainment business.

SIEGEL: So he becomes very successful. He makes successful and famous movies. That's the meteoric rise part of his life. What's the tragic fall part?

KREFFT: Oh, the tragic fall is very sad. The tragic fall - in 1929, he put himself at risk in trying to merge with Loew's Incorporated, the parent company of MGM. And in that ensuing chaos following the stock market crash, he lost control of his - of both his companies, both Fox Film and Fox Theaters.

SIEGEL: I'm curious. You know, I've heard over many years stories about Louis B. Mayer or Samuel Goldwyn. I hadn't heard of William Fox. I mean, is he a peculiarly little-known character, or is this just a hole in my knowledge?

KREFFT: No, no, no, no. I think very, very few people have heard of him. You know, people have heard of course of the Fox Studio. But when I would mention William Fox, people would say, well, who's that? And then I would have to say, well, you know, the Fox Studio. And then, oh, OK, I didn't realize that there was a person. And in film history, he just tends to be - if he shows up at all, he shows up really in a minor way. And this was shocking to me because when I investigated his life and his contributions and his activities, I came to believe he was the most significant of all the studio founders.

SIEGEL: Vanda Krefft, who wrote a biography of William Fox, "The Man Who Made The Movies," thank you very much for talking with us.

KREFFT: Thank you very much, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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