Ismail Merchant, whoseprodigious 44-year filmmaking partnership with James Ivory became synonymouswith sumptuous period dramas and literary adaptations, died in London onWednesday after a brief illness. He was 68.

Over the years,Merchant's films garnered thirty-one Oscar nominations, including three forBest Picture. Among his best knownfilms were A Room with a View, ShakespeareWallah, Mr. And Mrs. Bridge, Howards End, and The Remains of the Day.

A consummate producer with an envied reputation for keeping a meticulous lid on budgets, Merchant was known for thefamilial atmosphere he created on his film sets, often cooking his legendaryIndian meals for actors and the crew.

He was in the process ofcompleting his latest film, The White Countess, with James Ivory, from a script by Kazuo Ishiguroand starring Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, LynneRedgrave, and Hiroyuki Sanada, in London when he died. He is pictured above on the set of The White Countess, standing next to the film's cinematographer Chris Doyle and Ivory on the right.

Sony Pictures Classicsis due to open The White Countess in North America on Nov 14.

"Words cannot express howdeeply saddened we are by this news," said Sony Pictures Classics co-presidentsMichael Barker and Tom Bernard and former colleague Marcy Bloom in a jointstatement.

"Ismail Merchant was oneof the best independent producers in the history of the movies. He will remainalways our hero, both personally and professionally."

Born in 1936 in Bombay,Merchant moved to New York in 1958 to attend New York University, where heearned a Master's Degree in business administration. While pursuing advertising, he kept focus on his dream tobecome a filmmaker, winning a place at the Cannes Film Festival and an AcademyAward for his first short film, The Creation of Woman.

It was in 1961 thatMerchant was introduced to his kindred spirit, James Ivory, and together theyestablished Merchant Ivory Productions. Along with screenwriter Ruth PrawerJhabvala, their partnership would result in more than forty films.

As the officialcommunique from his company Merchant Ivory Productions noted last night,Merchant's passion for film was relentless, helping him leap over obstacleswith humor, guile, and infectious enthusiasm.

Over the years, Merchanthelped to launch the careers of a number of young actors, including HelenaBonham Carter, James Wilby, Rupert Graves, Emma Thompson, Daniel Day-Lewis andHugh Grant. His films providedstarring roles for a who's-who list of Hollywood talent, including VanessaRedgrave, Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Glenn Close, Nick Nolte, UmaThurman, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and many, many others.

In addition to producing,Merchant also directed four films. That quartet comprised: In Custody, set in India; The Proprietor, set in Paris, starring Jeanne Moreau; CottonMary; and The Mystic Masseur, based on the novel by V.S. Naipaul.

Ivory, Jhabvala, Paul Bradley,Richard Hawley, along with the entire MIP company, last night pledged to carryon Merchant's legacy of passionate filmmaking, and will continue to producefilms with his verve, life and inspiration.

Merchant Ivory's newestfilm Heights, directed by ChrisTerrio, will be opening June 17th, also through Sony PicturesClassics.