Director William Friedkin, best known for his Oscar-winning “The French Connection” and blockbuster “The Exorcist,” died Monday in Los Angeles. He was 87.
His death was confirmed by Chapman University dean Stephen Galloway, a friend of Friedkin’s wife Sherry Lansing.
His final film, “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” starring Kiefer Sutherland, is set to premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
Along with Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola and Hal Ashby, Friedkin rose to A-list status in the 1970s, part of a new generation of vibrant, risk-taking filmmakers. Combining his experience in television, particularly in documentary film, with a cutting-edge style of editing, Friedkin brought a great deal of energy to the horror and police thriller genres in which he specialized.
“The French Connection” was an incredibly fast-paced and morally ambiguous tale, shot in documentary style and containing one of cinema’s most justifiably famous car chase sequences. “Connection” won several Oscars including best picture, director and actor (Gene Hackman) and became a touchstone for the police genre in films and television for years to come.
After the critical glory of “The French Connection” came 1973’s “The Exorcist,” which grossed an astounding $500 million worldwide and, along with “The Godfather,” initiated the blockbuster era in motion pictures. Adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel about the demonic possession of a young girl, “The Exorcist” was a heavily stylized thriller, as influential on the horror genre as “Connection” had been with cop thrillers. It brought him a second Oscar nomination as best director.
After his success with notable 1970s films, Friedkin made the superior thriller “To Live and Die in L.A.” After his marriage to studio head Sherry Lansing in 1991, when he again began directing films on a regular basis.
Friedkin started in the mailroom of the Chicago TV station WGN, where he quickly rose to directing television shows and documentaries. He said he directed about 2,000 TV shows during those early years, including 1962 documentary “The People vs. Paul Crump,” about the rehabilitation of a man on death row. It won him a Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco Film Festival and led him to a job leading the documentary division at WBKB and, subsequently, to a gig directing documentaries for producer David L. Wolper.
In the mid-’60s, he left documentaries behind, hoping to break into feature filmmaking. He directed an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” before he got his break when producer Steve Broidy hired him to direct the pop music story “Good Times,” starring Sonny and Cher, in 1967.
Its cutting-edge style, like that of the films of contemporary Richard Lester, gave the movie some flash. On the strength of that movie Friedkin was hired for “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” a nostalgic piece centered on the world of burlesque that Friedkin imbued with a fresh, modern look via the camerawork and editing. He segued into two rather stagebound vehicles, an adaptation of Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party” and Matt Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band.”
Neither was a portent of what was to come in 1971 when he directed “The French Connection,” and 1973’s heavily stylized horror film “The Exorcist” was yet another departure for Friedkin.
But “The Exorcist” proved to be his last box office bonanza. He did not direct another movie until 1977’s “Sorcerer,” a challenging remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear.” It went well over budget and disappointed at the time, though it has since become appreciated. He followed those with thriller “The Brink’s Job,” the controversial “Cruising” and the 1983 comedy “Deal of the Century.”
During the early 1980s, Friedkin and Blatty partnered on an “Exorcist III” project, but Friedkin exited over creative differences.
In 1985, he demonstrated his ability as an interesting stylistic director with “To Live and Die in L.A.,” a handsome, well-received thriller that was only a moderate financial success.
Except for “Rampage” in 1987, Friedkin was spending most of his time working in television on series such as “Tales From the Crypt,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Space Quest” and “C.A.T. Squad.” In 2000 he directed the moderately successful military drama “Rules of Engagement.”
In between he directed a remake of “Twelve Angry Men” for cable that was well received, as well as the documentary “Howard Hawks: American Artist.” A re-release of “The Exorcist” with supplementary footage grossed $40 million in the U.S.
During the 2000s, Friedkin took to the bigscreen with 2003 thriller “The Hunted,” starring Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro, and 2007 horror movie “Bug,” starring Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr., with Tracy Letts’ adapting his own stage play, which Friedkin had seen in 2004.
In 2011 he finished “Killer Joe,” which Letts adapted from his own play, with Matthew McConaughey and Emile Hirsch in the lead. The controversial crime pic had a limited release in the U.S. in 2012. The film, estimated to have been budgeted at $11 million, grossed only $4 million worldwide. Friedkin also directed two episodes of “CSI.”
Born in Chicago, Friedkin attended Senn High School, where he was not much of a student but sought to develop his basketball prowess to pro level. Since he never grew taller than six feet, however, he changed his career path to journalism.
The director who had spent years working in the documentary form himself appeared in many documentaries over the years about films and filmmakers including 2003’s “A Decade Under the Influence” and “Pure Cinema: Through the Eyes of the Master.”
He was married to newscaster Kelly Lange and actors Lesley-Anne Down and Jeanne Moreau. He is survived by fourth wife Lansing and two sons.
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