Jonathan Demme, Oscar-Winning Director of 'Silence of the Lambs,' Dies at 73

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Jonathan Demme

He also directed 'Philadelphia,' 'Rachel Getting Married,' the 2004 remake of 'The Manchurian Candidate' and several music docs and videos.

Filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who won an Academy Award for best director for The Silence of the Lambs, has died. He was 73.

Demme died at his Manhattan apartment on Wednesday of complications related to esophageal cancer, Leslee Dart, his publicist, confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter

Demme was not averse to tackling strong subject matter: He directed Philadelphia, a mainstream film dealing with the AIDS crisis. He won acclaim for his direction of Melvin and Howard, an offbeat saga about a man who claimed to have given Howard Hughes a ride and later received $150 million in the reclusive billionaire's will.

Demme's talents were multiple and his subject matter diverse: He directed Swing Shift, starring Goldie Hawn as a woman working in a World War II defense plant. He shifted tones with dark comedy and oddball humor in Something Wild and Married to the Mob.

More recently, he directed an episode of Fox's new series Shots Fired, which airs Wednesday night; the episode will pay tribute to Demme with an "in memoriam" end card.

"We mourn the passing of Jonathan Demme," series creators Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood said in a statement. "He was a tremendous artist who shared our belief that art can change the world. He was a gift, and he made every one around him better. He taught us to care a little bit more, believe a little bit more and listen a little bit more. We will miss him."

Other recent credits include an episode of Netflix's upcoming series Seven Seconds, from Veena Sud. He also directed the 2016 documentary Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids and the 2015 Meryl Streep-starrer Ricki and the Flash. In addition, he directed two episodes of AMC's The Killing — also from Sud — and the acclaimed 2008 film Rachel Getting Married, starring Anne Hathaway.

Demme helmed the remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004). In 2010, he ventured into theater, directing Beth Henley's Family Week. He won distinction as a documentary filmmaker. He garnered initial acclaim for his documentary Stop Making Sense (1984), an inventive concert film about Talking Heads. Demme directed Swimming to Cambodia, a documentary on Spalding Gray's superb one-man show. In 2011, he directed a documentary on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, The Mad, and the Beautiful and another on frequent collaborator Neil Young, Neil Young Journeys, both of which premiered at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.

Demme shared a Grammy nomination for best music video for "Sun City: Artists United Against Apartheid." He also co-directed Bruce Springsteen's “Streets of Philadelphia” music video and helmed Springsteen's “Murder Incorporated” music video.

Demme directed three films focusing on Neil Young: — Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006), Neil Young Trunk Show (2009) and Neil Young Journeys (2011). He also helmed other concert films for such performers as New Order, Fine Young Cannibals, Suburban Lawns and Robyn Hitchcock.

Demme also won the DGA Award for outstanding directorial achievement for Silence of the Lambs, which he shared with his production team. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for best director of Silence of the Lambs.

He shared the win of the 1997 Pare Lorentz Award for Mandela with Edward Saxon and Jo Menell. He also won two New York Film Critics Circle Awards for best director, for Silence of the Lambs and Melvin and Howard. 

He won the Billy Wilder Award from the National Board of Review for Silence of the Lambs as well as the organization's best director honor for Silence of the Lambs.

Demme was a member of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000.

Robert Jonathan Demme was born Feb. 22, 1944, in Baldwin, N.Y. He grew up in Miami, where his father worked as a writer/publicist. As a teen, Demme aspired to become a veterinarian, and enrolled at the University of Florida. However, science was not his gift, and he shifted into writing movie reviews for the campus paper.

After graduation, Demme wrote movie reviews for a Coral Gables, Fla., paper. Fortuitously, his father introduced him to producer and Embassy Pictures founder Joseph E. Levine. Demme served in the Air Force and, after his discharge, was hired by Levine in Embassy's publicity department. During that period, Demme also sold movies for Pathe Contemporary theatrical division, wrote movie reviews for Film Daily and rock music reviews for Fusion. He also made his first movie, Good Morning, Steve.

Demme moved to England In 1969, where he produced TV commercials. While there, he assembled a musical score for the Irwin Allen thriller Sudden Terror (1970), earning his first movie credit as music coordinator.

While still in Great Britain, Demme met Roger Corman, who was directing Von Richthofen and Brown and was starting up his own production and distribution company, New World Pictures. Corman hired Demme to be his unit publicist on Von Richthofen and encouraged him to begin writing scripts for his new company.

Demme came through with a script for a motorcycle-gang movie, Angels, Hard as They Come, which Corman reportedly made for $125,000.

Demme went on to churn out low-budget/exploitations for New World in the early 1970s. He collaborated in writing Hot Box (1972), which he produced for Corman. He made his directorial debut with a women-in-prison picture, Caged Heat, based on his script. He then wrote and directed two more movies for New World, Crazy Mama and Fighting Mad. According to the late acerbic critic John Simon: “Jonathan Demme is probably the most gifted young filmmaker to come out of the stable of Roger Corman.”

Post-Corman, Demme directed Citizens Band, a comedy about CB radio, which was retitled Handle With Care (1977).

Indicative of his eclectic talents, Demme wrote for a number of seasons for Saturday Night Live, beginning in 1980. Among his more recent screenwriting credits are The Truth About Charlie (2002) and Jimmy Carter Man From Plains (2007).

Demme's directing credits also include Famous All Over Town (1988), Cousin Bobby (1992), The Complex Sessions (1994), Murder Incorporated (1995), Storefront Hitchcock (1998) and Beloved (1998), among others. In 2011, Demme started directing for episodic television, including the CBS drama A Gifted Man, which he executive produced, and HBO’s Enlightened.

Demme was married twice — to Evelyn Purcell and, after their divorce, to Joanne Howard, with whom he had three children. His nephew, Ted Demme, also a director (The Ref, Blow), died in 2002.

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