Lumet, Sidney: TV Work–Part 2

The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) hired Sidney Lumet, then 26, as a television staff director in 1950 and assigned him first to Danger, a suspense and adventure series.  In 1952, he was assigned to You Are There, a series of dramatic recretaions of great moments in history.

During the “Golden Age” of television drama, Lumet directed more than 200 plays for CBS-TV’s Playhouse 90, NBC-TV’s Kraft Television Theatre and Studio One.  Many of the productions were original teleplays; most were done live, not on tape or film but instantaneously, as they were performed before the cameras.  Lumet has said of his TV period: “Directors such as John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann, Bob Mulligan, Arthur Penn, and myself faced only one limitation, our own competence.  With fourteen hours of drama shows a week, a limited number of sets and miniscule budgets, we were able to experiment. If we laid an egg, it was a $20,000 egg, not the $300,000 one it would be today.”

Among the most acclaimed of Lumet’s live teleplays were the three series produced by David Susskind on the Kraft Television Theatre in 1958.  The first, consisting of short plays by Tennessee Williams, received rave reviews.  Cecil Smith wrote in the L.A. Times: “The effect was as sensational as any he (Williams) had ever achieved on stage or screen.  Rarely has the little air-borne theater been host to such probing, gnawing, stomach-twisting drama.”

The next Kraft show, adapted from Ernest Hemingway’s Fifty Grand, exemplified, according to one critic, “what we are losing by abandoning live television entirely to film.  Sidney Lumet’s direction had a succession of little cameo shots, electric insights into the whole fight game, into the characters who abound there.”  The third show, All the King’s Men, adapted from the novel by Robert Penn Warren, was called by Time magazine’s critic “an impressive argument for live TV.”  “Seldom has so much television wallop been packed into an hour as in director’s Lumet’s handling of the fall of Governor Willie Stark.”

Another high point in Lumet’s TV career was The Sacco and Vanzetti Story, a searing vindication of the “poor shoemaker and good fishpeddlar” executed for murder in Massachusetts in l927. The semi-documentary teleplay, presented on tape over NBC Network in June 1960, earned Lumet a nomination from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.  Lumet’s greatest TV success was his taped Play of the Week production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, first presented on WNTA-TV, New York, in November l960.  Jack Gould commented in the N.Y. Times: “To television has come a moment of enrichment and excitement unequalled in the medium’s thirteen years, a theatrical experience that remorselessly envelops the viewer in the playwright’s marathon documentary on doom.”  Lumet earned an Emmy Award for it, and O’Neill’s widow, Carlotta Monterey O’Neill, was so impressed with the production that she entrused to Lumet the future rights to all other O’Neill plays that had reverted to her control.

Meanwhile, Lumet made his debut as a stage director with a production of George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma at the Phoenix Theatre in New York City in 1955, and Night of the Auk, a science-fiction propaganda vehicle by Arch Oboler at the Playhouse.  One of the stage productions that Lumet remembers with pleasure was Caligula, Albert Camus’ philosophical melodrama about the amoral, sadistic Roman emperor, which opened at the 54th Street Theater on February 16, 1960.

A critic for Variety wrote that Lumet’s direction gave the play “considerable power, unraveled complex material and set a generally asbosrbing pace.”  Camus had been reluctant to give permission for the production of Caligula in the U.S., because he feared it would be done as a harmless intellectual exercise, easily forgotten, rather than as a melodrama that would haunt the intellect of the audience because it had, first of all, shattered its emotions.  Before his death, the French writer had indicated that he would trust Lumet to interpret Caligula properly.

In sum, Lumet won recognition as a gifted director of TV drama for his more than 200 plays for “Kraft Television Theater,” “Playhouse 90,” “You Are There,” “Omnibus,” “Best of Broadway,” “Alcoa Theater,” “Goodyear Playhouse,” etc.

He was making a lot of money and he was only 29.


From television Lumet turned to the stage and motion pictures.  He was given his first chance to direct a motion picture, Twelve Angry Men, by the film’s producer and star, Henry Fonda.  Thanks to his TV experience, Lumet was able to complete the tightly structured courtroom drama in 20 days.  Nominated for three Oscar Awards, including Best Picture, the film won wide critical approval.  Henry Fonda won the British Film Academy Award for Best Actor and the film itself won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival.   Twelve Angry Men launched an auspicious thirty-three-year-career in filmmaking.  Since l962, Lumet has devoted himself exclusively to film, which he considers as “the last and only medium in which it is possible to tell a story of conscience, outside the printed word.”