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Sidney Lumet

Film director:

Born June 25, 1924; Died April 9, 2011.

SIDNEY Lumet, who has died of lymphoma at the age of 86, was one of Hollywood’s top directors, with a career spanning half a century in terms both of years and films.

Lumet was one of Sean Connery’s favourite directors. They made five films together and Lumet played a vital role in Connery’s struggle to convince the public and industry that he could do things other than James Bond.

Lumet cast him as a former warrant officer in a North African military prison in The Hill (1965), as the mastermind behind a planned robbery in The Anderson Tapes (1971) and most daringly as a violent police officer going to pieces and beating Ian Bannen to death in The Offence (1972).

Connery was Colonel Arbuthnot, one of the suspects, in Lumet’s starry adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and was Dustin Hoffman’s dad, a career crook, in Family Business (1989), even though Connery was only seven years older than Hoffman.

In his book Being a Scot (2008) Connery rated Lumet alongside Hitchcock and Spielberg as a director who had that “vision thing”.

Lumet graduated from television at a time when television plays were often staged live. Switching to films, he was quick and knew exactly what he was doing – he would later write articulately about the process in his book Making Movies (1995), recommended reading for would-be film-makers.

He made his film debut with 12 Angry Men (1957), a compelling courtroom drama that touched on issues of social justice. Henry Fonda was alone at the start of the movie in believing the accused might be innocent. He methodically sets about looking at the evidence and persuading fellow jurors to think again. It was an adaptation of a television drama, originally directed by Franklin Schaffner and broadcast three years earlier.

It brought Lumet the first of four nominations for the Best Director Oscar. He was also nominated for Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976) and The Verdict (1982). He was nominated for best adapted screenplay for Prince of the City (1981). He was also nominated for eight Baftas.

Oddly he ended up empty-handed every time, though Peter Finch won a posthumous Oscar for his performance in Network, his co-stars Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight got the two actress Oscars, and Lumet directed Ingrid Bergman to an Academy Award in Murder on the Orient Express. The American Academy finally took pity on him and gave him an honorary Oscar in 2005.

Lumet was born into a Jewish showbusiness family in Philadelphia in 1924. His father was an actor, his mother a dancer and Lumet began appearing in juvenile roles on Broadway in the mid-1930s, while attending the famous Professional Children’s School.

He formed his own theatre group after serving in the US Army Signal Corps in Burma and India during the Second World War. However his future lay behind the camera.

Yul Brynner was a close friend and had been working as a director on a CBS drama series called Danger. When Brynner left to sing and dance in The King and I on Broadway he suggested Lumet as a replacement.

By the time Lumet made 12 Angry Men, he had already directed television productions of Don Quixote (1952), with Boris Karloff and Grace Kelly, numerous other plays and a series of historical re-enactments with Walter Cronkite, bringing such varied figures as Socrates and Jesse James to the screen under the title You are There.

Lumet was probably at his best with thrillers, driven not by action, but by characters and story, sometimes with a political sub-text.

Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon, both of which starred the young Al Pacino, were true stories. In Serpico Pacino was a cop risking his life when he blows the whistle on corruption. In Dog Day Afternoon he was a would-be bank robber who ends up at the centre of a hostage drama and becomes a media celebrity.

Network was a brilliant critique of the dictatorship of television ratings, with Peter Finch as the anchorman whose show is to be cancelled and who announces on air that he is going to commit suicide. His comment “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” struck a chord and was chosen by the American Film Institute as the 19th greatest film quote of all time.

His other films include Equus (1977), an adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s psychodrama with Richard Burton; The Wiz (1978), the all-black version of The Wizard of Oz, with Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as The Scarecrow; and Running on Empty (1988), a neglected gem about a family who must live their lives on the run because of political crimes committed by the parents years earlier. River Phoenix played their teenage son.

Lumet was married four times, to the actress Rita Gam, heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, the writer Gail Jones, who was the daughter of singer Lena Horne, and finally to Mary Gimbel, to whom he remained married at the time of his death.

He is survived by Mary and two daughters from his third marriage.

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