LOS ANGELES - Jack Valenti, the former White House aide and film industry lobbyist who instituted the modern movie ratings system and guided Hollywood from the censorship era to the digital age, died Thursday. He was 85.
Valenti had a stroke in March and was hospitalized for several weeks at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore.
He died of complications from the stroke at his Washington, D.C., home, said Seth Oster of the Motion Picture Association of America.
"In a sometimes unreasonable business, Jack Valenti was a giant voice of reason," Steven Spielberg said in a statement. "He was the greatest ambassador Hollywood has ever known, and I will value his wisdom and friendship for all time."
Valenti was a special assistant and confidant to President Lyndon Johnson when he was lured to Hollywood in 1966 by movie moguls Lew Wasserman and Arthur Krim.
When he took over as president of the Motion Picture Association of America, Valenti was caught between Hollywood's outdated system of self-censorship and the liberal cultural explosion taking place in America.
Valenti abolished the industry's restrictive Hays code, which prohibited explicit violence and frank treatment of sex, and in 1968 oversaw creation of today's letter-based ratings system.
"While I believe that every director, studio, has the right to make the movies they want to make, everybody else has a right not to watch it," Valenti told The Associated Press shortly before his retirement in 2004. "All we do is give advance cautionary warnings and say this is what we think is in this movie."
The white-haired Valenti was familiar to movie fans through his appearances at the Academy Awards, when frequent Oscar host Johnny Carson would poke fun at his speeches. But Valenti was a showman, equally animated whether testifying at a congressional hearing, hobnobbing with celebrities at the Cannes Film Festival or previewing films for Washington's elite in his office's private theater.
His friends ranged from actors Kirk Douglas and Sidney Poitier to Sen. Jesse Helms, a conservative often at odds with Hollywood.
In Valenti's later years, he handled tricky new challenges from the Internet and technologies that allow movies to be illegally reproduced and distributed in an instant. Valenti also traveled worldwide seeking to thwart movie piracy and boost film exports to reluctant countries such as China.
Born in Houston, the grandson of Sicilian immigrants, Valenti swept floors and made popcorn in a local theater as a boy. He never lost his wonder at what he called the "miraculous, unfathomable alchemy" of moviemaking.
After earning the Distinguished Flying Cross for piloting bombing missions over Italy in World War II, he worked his way through night school at the University of Houston, then earned a master's in business administration from Harvard.
In 1952, he co-founded an advertising and political consulting agency. He was introduced to Senate Majority Leader Johnson three years later and was "mesmerized," Valenti recalled. "I felt a primal force was in my presence."
He met his future wife, Mary Margaret Wiley, through his budding friendship with the senator - she was Johnson's longtime secretary. They had three children.