Sidney Lumet, Director of ‘12 Angry Men,' `Serpico,’ Dies at 86, NYT Says
Sidney Lumet, the director of “12 Angry Men,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network,” whose films explored themes of injustice and used the gritty streets of New York as a supporting character, has died. He was 86.
He died today of lymphoma at his home in Manhattan, where he lived with his fourth wife, Mary, the New York Times reported, citing his stepdaughter, Leslie Gimbel.
The son of a Yiddish theater actor, Lumet grew up poor in Depression-era New York, developing a passionate interest in what he saw as a flawed judicial system. He said he was drawn to “films of conscience” that would encourage introspection.
“Network” (1976) introduced an expression of frustration that became a lasting part of popular culture: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
Lumet was known as an actor’s director, and he worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Henry Fonda, Faye Dunaway and Paul Newman. Al Pacino was nominated for Academy Awards as best actor in two of Lumet’s best-known law-and-order works, “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Serpico.”
“If you prayed to inhabit a character, Sidney was the priest who listened to your prayers, helped make them come true,” Pacino said when Lumet was given an honorary Oscar in 2005 for “his brilliant services to screenwriters, performers and the art of the motion picture.”
He directed, on average, a film every year for four decades, including adaptations of plays by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill.
‘Respect for Intelligence’
“Throughout his films, whether or not they are adapted from literature, Lumet manifests a respect for intelligence and for the written word that is rare in contemporary American film,” Frank R. Cunningham wrote in a 1991 study of Lumet’s movies.
Keeping a wide berth from Hollywood, Lumet remained rooted in New York and shot most of his films there. For “Prince of the City” (1981), based on the real-life prosecution of corrupt police officers, Lumet shot at 135 locations around the city in just 52 days.
“I don’t like company towns, and Hollywood is a company town,” he said in a 1978 interview, explaining his affinity for New York. “I think that I’m a better director because I saw Jerome Robbins’ new ballet recently. And I want other good works of art. I want good theater, and I want Soho, where your best painting in the world is done. It’s a thrilling city.”
Lumet said that growing up in poor neighborhoods taught him that the justice system “has to be constantly checked, because it has to be kept honest.”
Also informing Lumet’s approach was his own brush with persecution during the 1950s, when the effort to blacklist suspected communists swept through the entertainment industry. An informant identified him as a communist, then recanted before Lumet could testify to congressional investigators.
Many of his best-known movies focused on men “who summon great courage to challenge the system, and in doing so make themselves social pariahs,” Don Shewey, an author and journalist who covers theater, wrote in 1982.
Lumet was the first to admit that he made duds as well as hits. They included “Bye Bye Braverman” (1968), about New York City friends gathering for a funeral. In his 1995 book, “Making Movies,” Lumet said the film’s strong cast was “left floundering like fish on the beach by a director who takes funerals and cemeteries too seriously.”
“I’m not a believer in waiting for ‘great’ material that will produce a ‘masterpiece,” Lumet wrote. “What’s important is that the material involve me personally on some level.”
Born June 25, 1924, in Philadelphia, Lumet moved to New York when he was 2. He was a child actor in the Yiddish theater, following in the footsteps of his Polish-born actor father, Baruch, who would later appear in two of Lumet’s movies. His mother, Eugenia, was a dancer.
Lumet made his Broadway acting debut in 1935 in Sidney Kingsley’s play “Dead End.” His first movie role came in 1939 in “One Third of a Nation.”
Back in New York after the war, Lumet taught acting -- he started an off-Broadway troupe that included Yul Brynner -- and began directing on television, working on the CBS series “Danger” and “You Are There” with Walter Cronkite.
‘12 Angry Men’
When Reginald Rose, author of the television drama “12 Angry Men,” and Fonda decided to turn the show into a movie, they recruited Lumet as director.
The 1957 film starred Fonda as a lone holdout advocating an acquittal during jury deliberations. Lumet, directing his first movie, used relatively low-tech tools to make viewers feel the growing tension in the stiflingly hot and close quarters shared by the 12 jurors.
“I used longer and longer lenses so that the ceiling became closer to the heads, the walls became closer to the chair,” Lumet later recalled. “I kept putting it into a smaller and smaller box to increase the claustrophobic feeling.”
The movie earned Lumet an Academy Award nomination and was nominated for best picture. Rose was nominated for screenplay writing.
After establishing himself in film, Lumet kept drawing on his experience in theater and live television. He launched movie projects with a few weeks of sit-down rehearsals and tried, when possible, to film scenes in one take. He had actors improvise key scenes, with a recorder running. The improvisations were typed up and incorporated into the final script.
For “Serpico” (1973), starring Pacino as a New York policeman who waged a perilous campaign against corruption inside the department, Lumet brought first-hand experience with greasing the palms of New York City police. Before 1966, when Mayor John Lindsay created an office to promote movie-making, filmmakers had to make cash payoffs at local precincts before shooting, Lumet recalled in a 1997 interview with the Hollywood Reporter.
Pacino and Lumet teamed up again on “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), which told the story of a botched 1972 bank robbery in Brooklyn. Pacino played the lead robber, who blusters his way through taking hostages and negotiating with police before finally revealing his hidden motive: he needs money to help his male lover pay for a sex-change operation.
Agatha Christie Novel
Lumet directed a star-studded cast including Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery in “Murder on the Orient Express,” a 1974 film based on the Agatha Christie novel. The movie was nominated for six Academy Awards, with Bergman winning for best supporting actress.
In “Network,” a scathing satire written by Paddy Chayefsky, Lumet directed a prescient look at how entertainment and news overlap on television. The film’s iconic moment comes when Peter Finch, playing a low-rated TV anchor facing termination, implores viewers to go to their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
The movie was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Lumet as best director, and won four: best writing, best actor (Peter Finch), best actress (Dunaway) and best supporting actress (Beatrice Straight).
With Jay Presson Allen, Lumet adapted Robert Daley’s “Prince of the City,” the true story of a corrupt detective who turned on his colleagues, for the big screen in 1981.
His other films included “The Fugitive Kind” (1959), “Long Day’s Journey into Night” (1962), “Fail Safe” (1964), “The Pawnbroker” (1965), “The Anderson Tapes” (1971), ‘The Wiz” (1978), “Night Falls on Manhattan” (1997) and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007).
Lumet’s first marriage, to actress Rita Gam, ended in 1955. His second, to designer Gloria Vanderbilt, ended in 1963.
That year Lumet married writer Gail Jones (now Gail Buckley), an actress and the daughter of singer Lena Horne. They had two daughters, Amy and Jenny, before the marriage dissolved in 1978. Jenny Lumet wrote “Rachel Getting Married” (2008).
Lumet married for a fourth time, in 1980, to Mary Gimbel, known as “Piedy.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Laurence Arnold in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Greiff at email@example.com