Passer and Forman met as boys at a boarding school in Czechoslovakia in the years after World War II. (Their classmates included the future playwright and president of the future democratic Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel.) After reuniting at the Prague Film Academy, Passer and Foreman's collaboration and friendship became central to the Czech New Wave in the 1960s, a period when avant-garde auteurs took international cinema by storm with wry, mordant depictions of life behind the Iron Curtain.
“We were all united, one way or another, with desire to expose the regime on the screen,” Passer told The Los Angeles Times . “And we got away with it because the regime was melting.” Passer co-wrote several of Forman's first films, including the Oscar-nominated “Loves of a Blonde," about a young woman seeking romance in small-town Czechoslovakia, and “The Fireman's Ball,” a colorful satire of eastern European communism that was banned in their home country but also nominated for an Academy Award.
Passer made his directorial debut in 1965's “Intimate Lighting," a gentle, comic film about a cellist visiting provincial Czechoslovakia. It, too, was banned by the Communist Party. After the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968 and a cultural crackdown followed, Passer and Forman fled Prague the following January. Passer often recalled their narrow escape. The two lacked exit visas, but a guard on the Austrian border, who knew Forman's films, let them pass.
They emigrated to America. There, Forman became one of the top filmmakers, directing Academy Award-winners “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” and “Amadeus.” Of Passer's U.S. films, none is more beloved than “Cutter's Way,” the 1981 neo-noir thriller starring Jeff Bridges and John Heard. Though the film's release was bungled by United Artists, “Cutter's Way,” directed by Passer, is considered a classic portrait of post-Vietnam malaise.
Passer made the realistic addiction drama “Born to Win” (1971), featuring a young Robert De Niro; “Law and Disorder” (1974), with Carroll O'Connor and Ernest Borgnine; and “Silver Bears” (1978), with Michael Caine and Cybill Shepherd.
The 1992 HBO film “Stalin,” starring Robert Duvall as the Soviet leader, was a standout. It won three Golden Globes. The last film Passer directed was 2004's “Nomad: The Warrior,” a historical epic set in 18th-century Kazakhstan. The film was shut down halfway through shooting and bought by Harvey Weinstein. He replaced Passer with another director.
In an interview with Film Comment in 2016, Passer, explaining why he hadn't made a film since, suggested there wasn't much room in the industry for his kind of film. “I refuse to do violent films. I consider it dangerous," said Passer. "I have seen real violence during World War II."
Passer is survived by his wife, Anne Passer; a son, Ivan Max Passer; and several nieces and nephews.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP