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Friends, family and colleagues tell THR about the quintessential New York director, an iconic artist whose impact, skills and social conscience were unprecedented.
Star of Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon
“There had been another director on Serpico and Dino De Laurentiis, who was the producer, had a problem with him, so I was asked to go and pick a director. Now I was new to everything so I didn’t quite know what that meant. I had never done that before, but I went out and met these directors. I didn’t know what I was doing. How do you audition a director? So I was kind of somewhat lost when I met Sidney at his house — I think it was in East Hampton. It was sort of in the early spring. He and I sat down, and I didn’t know what to say and just sort of sat there. But I didn’t have to worry, because he did all the talking. I saw that he understood things because he was so experienced — he had come out of TV, he had been an actor when he was a boy, and the language he spoke was very communicative and easy to get, especially for me, having come from the theater.
He spoke in a way that made me think, ‘This guy really knows what he’s talking about.’ Besides I had seen a couple of his movies and I thought they were really great. So I no longer had to put the names in a hat and draw from it. I knew talking to Sidney that being in his presence made me comfortable, As I’ve said before, he was a very gentle person, very astute. So I said, ‘If you want my opinion, that’s the guy to go with.’ He had a way about him, confident, a lot of belief in himself.
We had 105, 106 locations on Serpico, and he shot it so fast. He turned a hot summer into winter. And to watch him dance with the camera is the thing. Anybody who visits the set of a Sidney Lumet movie marvels at the way he rides the camera. He is also very actor-oriented. It is all about the actor’s performance, the interrelating of characters. He takes performers and rehearses them for weeks on end. He works you from the top of the play to the end, from start to finish, and he does it and redoes it over and over again, and you don’t know why you are doing it over and over again until you go out there and shoot the film out of context. You realize why he took you through it from start to finish every day, because then as you do the movie, you always understand where you are. With Dog Day Afternoon, we did the same thing. We went on and on and on in rehearsals. On Serpico, we had 105 locations. On Dog Day, we had just one location, the bank. He never says to you as an actor, ‘So what do you want to do?’ There’s no such thing like that with Sidney. He tells you what to do. He’s got it all mapped out. Even if you don’t know where you are, being with him for half an hour, you’ll know where you are. He’ll direct the opening bank scene in such a way — you come in here, go there, do this here, move here — so that you automatically are robbing a bank. He gives you that. In the early days, to have a director like him was a gift sent from heaven. He once said to me about Dog Day Afternoon, he came up to me and whispered to me, ‘You know, Al, it’s out of our hands. It’s got it’s own life.’ And that’s sort of what he created in those scenes outside the bank. He just allowed that sort of spontaneity to manifest itself. I used to see him a lot. He loved what he did, he loved making movies. You look at that last film he did, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. He made that movie when he was 83, but it was like the work of a young filmmaker who was just starting out. It had all that energy, spontaneity and innocence. I last saw him in February. I knew he was ill. He’s someone I will miss. He was one of those guys you just like to talk to.”
Daughter and screenwriter
“Someone said to me, after dad died, that Sidney Lumet kept movie families together. What he meant was, when my dad was shooting, work was over at 6 p.m. Cast and crew got to go home to their husbands, wives and kids.
He had dinner with my sister and me every night at 6:30.
Dad had enormous respect for time. Two weeks rehearsal time was built into every schedule. I think it was one of his favorite parts of the whole process, although he never actually said that, but he was at his most fluid and intuitive in rehearsal. One could actually watch an idea — his, the actor’s, the writer’s — grow. The actors would put it on its feet, and if he felt it could walk, it became a setup.
There was very little difference between what he rehearsed and what he shot.
He started working at 4 years old. He was an actor in a family of actors in the Yiddish Theater. He continued acting until he enlisted in the Army in World War II and served overseas. Then he came home and started working again, as a director in live television, where time was everything. He said live TV was a battle against the clock.
His first movie, 12 Angry Men, was about time. The clock ticking away the life of a young man.
As an artist he had an 82-year career, 50 of those from 12 Angry Men in 1957 to Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead in 2007 spent as a movie director.
He respected time and it respected him back.”
“I was lucky enough to have played a small part in two Sidney Lumet films. Paddy Chayefsky, his producer and I were having lunch at the MGM commissary. We were talking about directors for Network. We all had our own list. Paddy said, ‘Put away our list, I’d like Sidney Lumet to direct it.’ Pause. ‘Sidney Lumet? You must be kidding.’ All I could think of was Rod Steiger putting a nail in his hand in The Pawnbroker. So I said, ‘When was the last time Sidney Lumet was funny?’ Paddy got so angry that he turned over his chicken soup, some of which went over my shirt. All I could do was say, ‘Now that’s funny. And Sidney would be great.’ Everybody who worked with Sidney loved him, his professionalism and his love for his craft and all of his actors, especially when he would finish the day’s work by 3 o’clock. He would shoot effortlessly fast, and be done by 3 or 4 in the afternoon and actors could go home and that was his television training. Originally, we developed Prince of the City with Brian De Palma and De Niro and it took so long for Brian to deliver it, we decided to give it to Sidney. He got the script and got the movie done faster than Brian could get a script done.”
“I learned more about acting on film from Sidney Lumet than any other American director. We rehearsed Prince Of The City for three weeks and then ran it as though it were a play. He was a consummate artist whom I consider one of the few great filmmakers of the 20th — and 21st — centuries. I will miss him.”
screenwriter, The Verdict
“Sidney Lumet was the perfect model. He made magnificent films, he made them one after the other, he was never dissuaded by adverse critical or industry notice. He just kept working. One can name five great films, off the top of one’s head, that are an indispensable part of our film history; and then name five more. And then name five more. Rest in peace.”
Robert Ellis Miller
Director and former assistant to Lumet
“He was wonderful to work with. He was very organized; he didn’t waste time. He was a serious man, he wasn’t a joker, he didn’t play the fool. He had good taste and a great intellect, he loved Chekhov, and didn’t get jealous of other people. He wasn’t like others in the entertainment industry.
We worked together on 12 Angry Men. I was his assistant. It was a very complicated piece and he didn’t want the audience to be bored or say, ‘Too bad, you jerk.’ Part of it was staging: He was so good at telling the audience where to look, who’s important, what’s going to happen. He thought it was challenging and tough, but it was strong and interesting. He didn’t want to start with any tight close-ups: ‘Do that too soon,’ he’d say, ‘and they’re bored. Don’t let them have that yet.’
He liked Henry Fonda and they were good friends. He introduced me to Fonda’s daughter, Jane, and I did one of her first movies, Any Wednesday. He grew up with actors; his father [Baruch Lumet] was a leading star in the Yiddish theater.
I learned so much from him about casting and staging and how the music can help you or interfere with you.
I have to thank him: He fought for me and got me my first job as a director. I was an assistant at CBS News and he was leaving to go on his honeymoon and they said, ‘Who’s doing to do this?’ He said, ‘Robert Ellis Miller!’ They said, ‘But he’s only an assistant!’ And he said, ‘Not any more.’
He used to call me ‘Bobala’ [like the Yiddish word, boobala, or ‘sweetie’]. He said, ‘Bobala, you take the news, I’m going on vacation.’
He was so smart. It made working for him easy.”
Screenwriter, Dog Day Afternoon
“He was not a stylist and he said that about himself. He was first and foremost a storyteller. His focus was always simply on the work or the story we were telling. There was nobody who was so intent on getting to the heart of the story. We had three weeks of rehearsal on Dog Day Afternoon. Most of that time he was listening and watching and seeing what it was that the actors brought to the part. And then working with that to get to the truth of the story. It was a process of discovery and to that extent it was so exciting to work with him as opposed to those directors who just simply are really not interested in your point of view. On Dog Day Afternoon, the major issues that came up as we moved from the first to the second draft — we only went through two drafts — were all about changing it from a comedy to a drama of so much more depth and significance. When it started out the working title was The Boys in the Bank. Ha, ha, ha, ha. My first draft was full of jokes. What we did for the most part was simply take the jokes out and get down to what the story was really about essentially, and that was about two people who loved each other and couldn’t find a way to deal with it. At the end of the first day of shooting, at the dailies, there was a kind of a silence and Al [Pacino] turned to Sidney and said, ‘Can we do that day again?’ And Sidney said, ‘Absolutely,’ and they shot the same pages, same dialog, the next day. Sidney could see in the dailies that there was something missing from Al’s performance and he was not going to leave him hanging out there when he had done less than he knew Al could do.”
“He cast me in The Group when I had just turned 19 and in the years since I have yet to meet anyone with the focus, the passion, the intellect or the energy of Sidney Lumet. He was one of our very best.”
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