Oscar Directors: Lumet, Sidney–Major American, Quintessentially New York Filmmaker Dies at 86

Director Sidney Lumet died today at his home in Manhattan. The prolific filmmaker of more than 40 films, who had never won a legit, competitive Oscar, despite numerous nominations,  was 86.

His stepdaughter, Leslie Gimbel, told the New York Times that the cause was lymphoma.

Lumet was Oscar-nommed for “12 Angry Men,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network” and “The Verdict.” He never won an Academy Award for directing but was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2005. His other notable titles included “Serpico,” “The Pawnbroker,” “Prince of the City,” for which he was nommed for screenplay, and recently, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”

 

Like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, Lumet’s films often had a strong New York sensibility and he rarely worked in Hollywood.

 

Known as an actor’s director, he was able to coax landmark performances — and 17 Oscar noms — from actors including Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda and Faye Dunaway. The films often revolved around themes of justice and police corruption. Yet his style deferred to the actors and the material, and he often stayed quietly in the background.

 

Lumet was a child actor onstage and appeared in the 1939 feature “One Third of a Nation” before serving in WWII. After the war, he directed Off Broadway theater and then, like Robert Altman, began directing early drama anthologies for television like “Studio One” and “The Alcoa Hour.”

 

His first feature, ensemble courtroom drama “12 Angry Men,” scored an Oscar nom, an early sign of Lumet’s skill in adapting theatrical productions for films. In 1960, he directed Marlon Brando in the Tennessee Williams adaptation “The Fugitive Kind,” as well as several TV dramas including the controversial “The Sacco-Vanzetti Story,” “Rashomon” and “The Iceman Cometh.”

 

The 1962 “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” was another masterful theatrical adaptation, this time of Eugene O’Neill, starring Jason Robards and Hepburn, who was Oscar-nommed.

 

His films of the 1960s were often political in nature, including WWII pic “The Hill,” “Fail-Safe,” starring Fonda, and “The Pawnbroker,” for which Rod Steiger was Oscar-nommed.

 

“Serpico,” the story of a New York cop campaigning against corruption in the force, was one of his most iconic films, and netted an Oscar nom for star Al Pacino. In his autobiography, Lumet described the film as “a portrait of a real rebel with a cause.”

 

After a foray into a number of diverse features, Lumet again cast Pacino in a starring role, this time in “Dog Day Afternoon,” based on the true story of a bank robbery gone wrong. The pic, which Pauline Kael called “one of the best New York movies ever made,” won a screenplay Oscar and was nommed for five more.

 

His next pic, the scathing, much-quoted “Network,” starring Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch, was one of Lumet’s few successful comedies, winning four Oscars and nominated for six more. Legit adaptations followed, with “Equus” and “The Wiz,” starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. He was Oscar-nommed again, this time for writing, for gritty cop pic “Prince of the City,” then tried on yet another legit adaptation with “Deathtrap.”

 

“The Verdict,” starring Paul Newman, returned Lumet to the courtroom setting and netted five Oscar noms. “Running on Empty” from 1988 was a return to 1960s revolutionary values, while “Family Business,” “A Stranger Among Us” and “Guilty as Sin” were less well received as studies in crime and justice. Another corrupt police-themed pic, “Night Falls on Manhattan,” drew more approval.

 

He directed a 1999 remake of John Cassavetes’ “Gloria,” this time with Sharon Stone in the title role, and also tried episodic television with New York courtroom series “100 Centre Street.”

 

At the age of 83, he was still going strong with 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” a well-received independently financed drama starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.

 

Born in Philadelphia, Lumet studied at the Professional Children’s School and Columbia U. in New York. His parents were actors in Yiddish theater, and Lumet made his debut on radio at age 4 and onstage at 5.

 

His 1996 book “Making Movies” was a light-hearted, common-sense look at the process of filmmaking.

 

Lumet was married four times; to actress Rita Gam; to socialite Gloria Vanderbilt; to Gail Jones, daughter of Lena Horne, with whom he had two daughters, Amy, a sound editor and actress-screenwriter Jenny; and finally to Mary Gimbel, who survives him. He is also survived by stepdaughter Leslie Gimbel; a stepson, Bailey Gimble; nine grandchildren and a great grandson.