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Sidney Lumet, who directed such impassioned, often furious, movies as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network, died Saturday morning at his home in New York City. He was 86.
The cause of death was lymphoma, his stepdaughter Leslie Gimbel told the New York Times.
Lumet, who received five Oscar nominations and seven DGA nominations for his work, was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2005 for his “brilliant services to screenwriters, performers and the art of motion pictures.”
“From his first feature in 1957, Twelve Angry Men, to his last feature fifty years later, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Sidney Lumet experienced filmmaking with a never-wavering enthusiasm for the form, the technology and perhaps most of all, a true respect for the actor,” DGA president Taylor Hackford said in a statement.
Added Steven Spielberg: “Sidney Lumet was one of the greatest directors in the long history of film. Compelling stories and unforgettable performances were his strong suit.”
As a filmmaker, Lumet was most at home in the streets of New York. “Locations are characters in my movies,” he once wrote. “The city is capable of portraying the mood a scene requires.” And his films often tackled social issues and focussed on lead characters struggling for personal and moral identity.
He directed some of his era’s greatest movie performers, including Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, Paul Newman, Ingrid Bergman, Al Pacino, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway, among others.
He also worked with a roster of top writers, including Reginald Rose, who penned 12 Angry Men; Paddy Chayevsky, who authored Network; and Peter Shaffer, who adapted his play Equus, and he also directed film adaptations of works by Eugene O’Neill, Anton Chekhov, Arthur Miller and E.L. Doctorow.
In the 1970s, Lumet plunged into New York-set crime tales with what amounted to a trilogy about life in a corrupted city: Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Prince of the City (1981).
His many honors included career awards from the DGA, the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and a Golden Globe for Network.
Born in Philadelphia on June 25, 1924, Lumet grew up in New York, where his father Baruch joined the Yiddish theater. He himself appeared on stage by the age of five and made his Broadway debut in 1935 as one of the kids in Sydney Kingsley’s Dead End.
After the war, during which he served in the Army Signal Corps, he returned to New York, supporting himself by teaching and the occasional acting job.
With the help of his friend Yul Brynner, he got a foothold in live TV as a second assistant director at CBS.
During the ‘50s, he directed more than 250 TV shows, many of them live. His TV credits include Kraft Television Theater, The Alcoa Hour, Goodyear TV Playhouse, Studio One, Omnibus and Playhouse 90. His personal favorites were the CBS News-aided “You Are There” segments, The Salem Witch Trials, which he directed the same week that Edward R. Murrow aired his famous interview of Red-baiter Joseph McCarthy and The Death of Socrates, which starred Barry Jones and Newman.
His first feature film was the 1957 courtroom drama 12 Angry Men, which followed Henry Fonda and other actors into the jury room for an examination of the justice system and earned three Oscar nominations.
During the ‘60s, Lumet’s films reflected the social upheavals of the times. He moved from play adaptations like The Fugitive Kind, A View From the Bridge and Long Day’s Journey Into Night to The Pawnbroker, starring Rod Steiger as the victim of Nazi persecution; the nuclear drama Fail-Safe; and The Group, which looked at the lives of eight Vassar grads.
In the ‘70s, he enjoyed a particularly successful collaboration with Pacino on movies that burrowed into the reality of New York street life — the cop drama Serpico and the bank heist tale Dog Day Afternoon.
Working from a screenplay by Chayefsky, Lumet also served up a satire about the TV business in 1976’s Network, a scathing portrait of the business that proved in many ways prophetic about the rush for ratings and also popularized Peter Finch’s cry of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
He stumbled when he attempted a film version of the Broadway musical The Wiz by setting the fantasy in the real streets of New York in 1978, although the film now serves as something of a time capsule with dance numbers taking place at the foot of the Twin Towers. But he returned to form with the 1982 courtroom drama The Verdict, starring Newman as an alcoholic lawyer looking for redemption.
Lumet’s last film was 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a crime thriller which blended together a robbery gone bad with a family drama and drew critical raves.
Lumet was married three times — to Rita Gam, Gloria Vanderbilt and Gail Jones — before marrying his current wife Mary Gimbel in 1980. He is survived by his wife, stepdaughter Leslie, stepson Bailey Gimbel and daughters Amy Lumet and Jenny Lumet as well as nine grandchildren and a great grandson.
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