Jerry Greenberg, Oscar-Winning Editor of 'The French Connection,' Dies at 81

Courtesy of Peter Zakhary/Tilt Photo
Jerry Greenberg

He is also known for his work on films including 'Kramer vs. Kramer,' 'Apocalypse Now' and 'Scarface.'

Jerry Greenberg, the film editor whose Oscar-winning work on the 1971 crime thriller The French Connection produced one of the most famous car chases in cinema history, died Friday after a long illness. He was 81.

Greenberg earned two additional Oscar nominations, both in 1980, for Kramer vs. Kramer and Apocalypse Now. In 2015, he was honored by the American Cinema Editors with its Career Achievement Award.

Gerald B. Greenberg began his career in 1960 in his native New York, where he learned how to edit music and began familiarizing himself with the Moviola, splicers, synchronizers and recorders. A big break came when he was offered an apprenticing job for the legendary Dede Allen on Elia Kazan’s America America (1963).

By 1967, when Greenberg and Allen were on Bonnie and Clyde, Greenberg was given the task of editing a couple of the shootout scenes, working closely with Allen and director Arthur Penn. He cut his first solo feature, Bye Bye Braverman, for director Sidney Lumet in 1968 and won the Oscar and a BAFTA for editing William Friedkin’s French Connection soon afterward.

Greenberg is known for his work on many of the films of the American New Wave, working for directors like Penn, Francis Ford Coppola, Lumet, Michael Cimino, Brian De Palma and Friedkin.

His filmography also includes Alice’s Restaurant (1969), The Boys in the Band (1970), They Might Be Giants (1971), Dressed to Kill (1980), Heaven’s Gate (1980), Reds (1981), Still of the Night (1982), Scarface (1983), Wise Guys (1986), The Untouchables (1987), The Accused (1988), Awakenings (1990), American History X (1998), Inspector Gadget (1999), Get Carter (2000) and Trapped (2002).

Presenting the ACE Career Achievement Award to Greenberg, editor Carol Littleton spoke of his work on Apocalypse Now, saying: "Jerry masterly edits the taking of a Vietnam village using Wagner’s 'Ride of the Valkyries,' which Robert Duvall's character plays to inspire his troops and horrify the enemy. This iconic scene…nothing better captures the apocalyptic madness of the war in Vietnam, a picture of the American Dream turned nightmare."

She continued: "Jerry takes great pride in his approach to editing, vigorously working a scene for its maximum psychological and kinetic effect. He controls the emotions, never letting sentiment fall into sentimentality. He lines the actors' takes, finding gold nuggets, polishing a performance until it shines. He examines every take for the right camera move, a spark of brilliance when the actor becomes the moment. His action sequences are tight, controlled, focused and always suffused with character, never gratuitous, never chaotic or lacking in psychological impact."

Speaking of the editors that Greenberg mentored, Littleton added: "Not only has Jerry contributed to the success of directors' films, but also to the success of many editors' careers as well. Generosity is the bedrock of Jerry's character.”