A winner of multiple Academy Awards, celebrated film editor Michael Kahn was best known for his longstanding partnership with filmmaker Steven Spielberg. After cutting his teeth in television editing the popular WWII sitcom "Hogan's Heroes" (CBS, 1965-1971) and a slew of B-movie quickies like "Black Belt Jones" (1974), Kahn picked up an Emmy Award for his work on the miniseries "Eleanor and Franklin" (ABC, 1976). "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), his first collaborative effort with a young Spielberg, portended things to come and soon led to Kahn's first Oscar win for the swashbuckling adventure classic, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981). His prowess on films as thematically and visually distinct as Adrian Lyne's polarizing psycho-thriller "Fatal Attraction" (1987) and Spielberg's WWII drama "Empire of the Sun" (1987) each earned Kahn an Oscar nomination that same year. Second and third Academy statuettes were picked up by the editor for a pair of WWII-centric masterpieces - the harrowing "Schindler's List" (1993) and the visceral "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), respectively. Alongside Spielberg, he continued to work at the forefront of technology and craft in films as diverse as "The Adventures of Tintin" (2011) and the presidential biopic "Lincoln" (2012). Although one of the most Oscar-nominated film editors in history, the prolific and seemingly tireless Kahn showed no signs of slowing, some 50-plus years into his astonishing career.
Michael Kahn was born on Dec. 8 1935 in New York City, where he was raised and educated. As a young adult he found work at a large ad agency in Manhattan and soon thereafter was sent to Hollywood to help produce a series of television commercials. Having impressed his contacts in Los Angeles, Kahn was offered a position working as an editorial assistant for industry veteran Dann Cahn, who had made a name for himself working on "I Love Lucy" (CBS, 1951-57). In a fateful decision, Kahn chose to remain on the West Coast and accepted the entry level job. After being advised to join the Editors' Union by Cahn, the yeoman editor worked on a great many television programs early in his career, among them "The Adventures of Jim Bowie" (ABC, 1956-58). The golden era of television proved to be the perfect learning ground for Kahn, who gained invaluable experience within a short amount of time. After several years of being broken in on virtually every television genre imaginable, he was asked to join the crew of "Hogan's Heroes" (CBS, 1965-1971). Beginning as an assistant editor on the popular military comedy starring troubled leading man Bob Crane, Kahn was soon given the reigns as series editor - a position later described by Kahn as a "career-maker" - which he excelled at for over 130 episodes.
Based on the strength of his work on "Hogan's Heroes," as well as a growing reputation as an efficient and intuitive "cutter," Kahn was made an offer to edit the feature film "Rage" (1972). An ecological revenge tale about a rancher whose family is inadvertently exposed to toxic gas by a covert government agency, the film was helmed by its star, Oscar-winning actor George C. Scott, who had specifically asked for Kahn to edit his debut as a director. "Hogan's Heroes" also led to more early work for the budding film editor when Kahn was asked to lend his skills to "Trouble Man" (1972), a Blaxploitation crime drama by another actor-turned-director, Ivan Dixon, who played Staff Sergeant Kinchloe on the comedy series. With his days in TV now behind him, Kahn reteamed with Dixon again for the Black Revolutionary satire "The Spook Who Sat by the Door" (1974), as well as George C. Scott, who once more pulled double-duty as the director and star of the desert island Oedipal melodrama, "The Savage Is Loose" (1974). In what was looking to be a career trend, Kahn picked up additional work that year on more Blaxploitation movies, like the Isaac Hayes vehicle "Truck Turner" (1974) and "Black Belt Jones" (1974), an urban martial arts actioner starring Jim Kelly.
Throughout the mid-1970s, Kahn worked steadily, albeit on an increasingly odd array of B-grade genre films. Among the more memorable were the cult classic thriller "The Devil's Rain" (1975) and a post-apocalyptic adventure starring Yul Brynner as "The Ultimate Warrior" (1975). A return to television provided Kahn an opportunity to demonstrate his abilities as a storyteller with the acclaimed biopic miniseries "Eleanor and Franklin" (ABC, 1976), for which the editor received an Emmy Award. The frontier adventure sequel "The Return of a Man Called Horse" (1976) provided Kahn with a fortuitous collaboration with director Irvin Kershner and Director of Photography Owen Roizman. When their young director friend Steven Spielberg was casting around for an editor on his new science fiction project, the men each suggested Kahn. Following a brief initial meeting, Kahn was hired to edit Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977). The experience for Kahn was like no other previously, as he and the director worked closely together throughout the production, sharing a rented house in Alabama during filming. Kahn's work on the visually stunning and intelligently presented film earned him his first Academy Award nomination the following year and began a working relationship with the director that would last for decades.
For the twosome's second effort together, Kahn received his first and only producers credit on the Hollywood wunderkind's notorious big-budget comedy misfire "1941" (1979). The filmmaking duo rebounded from their sophomore slump with the timeless action-adventure classic "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981). Due in large to a breathtaking opening sequence that introduced the world to globe-trotting archeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), Kahn's work on the blockbuster won the editor his first Oscar. In between Spielberg assignments, Kahn worked his rhythmic storytelling magic on various mainstream entertainments, including the haunted house classic "Poltergeist" (1982) - produced by Spielberg- and the Emilio Estevez-directed drama "Wisdom" (1986). The following year, Kahn's work on both the controversial Michael Douglas-Glenn Close thriller "Fatal Attraction" (1987) and Spielberg's WWII drama "Empire of the Sun" (1987) each earned the editor Oscar nominations in the same category. Another fruitful recurring collaboration took form, with Kahn working alongside producer-director Frank Marshall - another longtime partner of Spielberg's - beginning with the horror-comedy "Arachnophobia" (1990) and the harrowing based-on-fact tale of survival, "Alive" (1993).
The year 1993 was an exceptionally busy one for the in-demand Kahn, who also edited a pair of Spielberg projects, the first of which was the groundbreaking special effects thrill-ride "Jurassic Park" (1993). The second was Spielberg's acclaimed Holocaust drama "Schindler's List" (1993), a film that earned Kahn his second Academy Award and was later described by the editor as the most emotionally draining experience of his career. Five years and an equal number of films later - most with Spielberg - he took home his third Oscar for his tour de force contributions to Spielberg's WWII rescue epic "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), which like "Raiders of the Lost Ark," featured a riveting opening sequence. Kahn continued to work with Spielberg on such projects as "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" (2001), "Catch Me If You Can" (2002) and "Munich" (2005). The talented editor interspersed the occasional non-Spielberg endeavor, such as the indie romantic-drama "10 Items or Less" (2006) with big-budget returns to form, like Spielberg's long-awaited adventure sequel "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (2008). After more than 50 years in the industry, Kahn received the American Cinema Editors' Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 for his incredible body of work, which only continued to grow.
As times changed and techniques evolved, Kahn's continued work with Spielberg remained one of the few constants in Hollywood. One thing that did change, however, was the director's resistance to moving from traditional film to digital technology. Spielberg broke with tradition when it came time for the two to put together the motion-capture animation adventure "The Adventures of Tintin" (2011), for which he used the Avid editing software - by then the industry standard - for the first time. Kahn, however, had already gained valuable digital experience on such films as 1996's natural disaster adventure "Twister." Not as attached to the tactile nature of film as his frequent collaborator, Kahn commented on the differences between the two approaches in a typically understated manner, saying "The machines don't do the editing; the individuals do the editing." Still at the top of his game, Kahn reteamed with Spielberg for the WWI equestrian melodrama "War Horse" (2011) and the ambitious Civil War biopic "Lincoln" (2012), starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the revered 16th President of the United States.
By Bryce Coleman