Robert Mulligan dies at 83

'Mockingbird' helmer helped actors find Oscar-winning form

Robert Mulligan, who directed "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Summer of '42," among other films, died Friday of heart disease at his Connecticut home. He was 83.

Mulligan received a best director Oscar nomination in 1963 for "Mockingbird."

The brother of actor Richard Mulligan, he also directed "The Great Impostor," "Love With the Proper Stranger," "Baby, the Rain Must Fall," "Inside Daisy Clover," "Up the Down Staircase" and "The Other." He also narrated "Summer of '42."

Known for his diffident nature and sensitivity toward players, Mulligan directed five different actors in Oscar-nominated performances: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Natalie Wood, Ruth Gordon and Ellen Burstyn, with Peck winning the best actor Oscar for "Mockingbird."

He also elicited consistently fine performances from a range of his players, including Anthony Perkins in "Fear Strikes Out," Jennifer O'Neill in "Summer of '42," Robert Redford in "Inside Daisy Clover" and Richard Gere in "Bloodbrothers."

Mulligan earned his stripes in live TV in New York in the early 1950s and helmed such productions as "Studio One," "Playhouse 90," "The Alco Hour," "The Philco Television Playhouse" and "The DuPont Show of the Month" before becoming a movie director in 1957 with "Fear Strikes Out," the story of baseball pitcher Jimmy Piersall.

In 1982, Mulligan directed "Kiss Me Goodbye," a reworking of the Brazilian film "Donna Flor and Her Two Husbands." His more recent films include "Clara's Heart" (1988), starring Whoopi Goldberg, and "The Man in the Moon" (1991).

Self-effacing with a nonflamboyant filmic style, Mulligan didn't receive the acclaim of such ex-TV contemporaries as Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn and John Frankenheimer. His films were more popular with audiences than with critics.

While some debated whether he had a discernible personal vision in his films, Mulligan was known for his casting and direction of children, including "Staircase," where he personally interviewed more than 500 New York high school students.

Sensing a kindred spirit, Francois Truffaut was a vocal champion, particularly cognizant of what he perceived as undue criticism of Mulligan's work for lacking a particular "style." Mulligan himself was dismissive of critics/cineaste talk: "I don't know anything about 'the Mulligan style,' " he told the Village Voice in 1978. "If you can find it, well, that's your job."

Mulligan was known for working side-by-side with screenwriters in shaping a cinematic story. "The attention which has been paid to directors is flattering but overrated," he noted in the same Voice interview. Mulligan had an eight-year collaboration with Alan J. Pakula, who served as a producer on all of Mulligan's early films, beginning with "Fear Strikes Out" through "The Stalking Moon" in 1969.

Mulligan was born Aug. 23, 1925, in New York. He worked for six months at the New York Times on the copy desk before entering Fordham University, where he majored in journalism and literature. He became one of the first students to enroll in the school's radio department.

After college, he started his show business career as a messenger boy at CBS. He soon moved up to production assistant and then won an opportunity to direct on the "Suspense" series. He excelled in the fast-paced milieu of live TV, helming such projects as "The Moon and Sixpence," "Billy Budd" and "The Bridge of San Luis Rey."

He directed stage plays as well, including "Comes a Day" on Broadway.