but he had in mind a different kind of family film from what he calls "that cutesy-poo stuff from Disney."
"I wanted to make movies in which the central characters were interesting people who just happened to be kids," he said during a Chicago visit last week. "When Mark Twain or J. D. Salinger sat down to write they weren't intending to write kid books; they were writing good books about kids."
Radnitz has produced a lot of movies that meet his qualifications, since his 1960 debut with "A Dog of Flanders." There were movies like his "Island of the Blue Dolphins," "My Side of the Mountain" and then, in 1972, a breakthrough with "Sounder," the story of a black sharecropper family which was nominated for an Oscar as the year's best film.
Radnitz has returned to the South for the setting of his latest film, "Where the Lilies Bloom," which was shot on location near Boone, NC, and tells the story of a family of four children who try to stay together after their parents die. Afraid of being packed away to the county orphanage, they keep their father's death a secret and support themselves by gathering and selling roots, herbs and flowers from the hills. (The film is at six outlying theaters.)
"I shot it way up at the top of the Smokies, and I used almost all local actors," Radnitz said, "because I was tired of hearing Southern accents that seemed about as South as the southern San Fernando Valley."
His lead, Julie Gholson, was selected from some 640 North Carolina girls to play the determined Mary Call -- who holds the family together and tries to respect her father's dying wishes. "We held auditions all over the state," he said, "and when we saw her, we knew we had something special."
The other family members included the sole import from Hollywood, Jan Smithers, who plays the older daughter in love with the neighbor farmer. Romey, the only boy in the family, was played by a local boy named Matthew Burrill, and the 3-year-old scene-stealer Ima Dean was played by Helen Harmon, then about 3 1/2.
"I'm often asked how we taught Helen her lines," Radnitz said. "Little kids are the EASIEST to teach. They memorize effortlessly. Helen knew everybody's lines."
The most important thing in casting kids, he believes, is to find young actors who will be credible to their peer group: "Kids know what kids look like and talk like, and they're not crazy about these Hollywood-style professional child actors who seem middle-aged at 16."