William Friedkin, the generation-defining director who brought a visceral reality to 1970s classics “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” and was rapidly named one of Hollywood’s top directors when he was still in his 30s, has died. He was 87.
Friedkin, who won an Oscar for best director for “The French Connection,” died Monday in Los Angeles, according to Marcia Franklin, his executive assistant for 24 years, who spoke on behalf of his family and wife, former studio president Sherry Lansing. His son, Cedric Friedkin, told the Associated Press that his father died after a protracted illness.
“He was a role model to both me and (my brother) Jack,” Cedric Friedkin said. “He was a massive inspiration.”
He established his fame early on with “The French Connection,” a true story of maverick New York City police Detective James “Popeye” Doyle’s efforts to track down Frenchman Fernando Rey, the architect of a huge narcotics pipeline funneling heroin into the United States.
It has one of the most spectacular chase moments ever filmed: Doyle, played by Gene Hackman in an Oscar-winning performance, narrowly misses arresting a tube train before racing to his police car to follow the train as it emerges on an elevated railway. Before abandoning the pursuit, he races beneath, dodging cars, trucks, and people, including a woman with a baby stroller.
The film, which cost barely $2 million to produce, proved a box office success upon its debut in 1971. It won Academy Awards for best picture, screenplay, and film editing, and critics hailed Friedkin, who was only 32 then, as a key member of a new generation of filmmakers.
He then directed “The Exorcist,” a 1973 blockbuster based on William Peter Blatty’s bestseller novel about a 12-year-old girl possessed by the devil.
The terrifying sequences of the girl’s possession, as well as a stellar cast that included Linda Blair as the kid, Ellen Burstyn as her mother, and Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller as the priests attempting to expel the devil, contributed to the film’s box-office success. It was so frightening for its day that many spectators left before the end, and some reported being unable to sleep for days afterward.
“The Exorcist” got ten Academy Award nominations, including one for William Friedkin.
Friedkin would direct films, and T.V. shows long into the twenty-first century after that second breakthrough. But he’d never duplicate the adulation he’d received for those early films, and he developed a reputation for feuding with performers and studio executives.
“I embody arrogance, insecurity, and ambition, which propel me forward while also holding me back,” he said in his 2012 memoir.
His 1977 mobster drama “Sorcerer,” starring Roy Scheider, was highly derided then and failed with spectators. It has since received critical acclaim and has become a cult classic, which Friedkin continues to defend. He told IndieWire in 2017 that it was the only of his films he could still see.
“The zeitgeist had changed by the time it came out,” he explained in 2013. “It came out around the time of ‘Star Wars,’ and that film, more than any other I can recall, really captured the zeitgeist.”
“Star Wars” was a film he was contacted to make, but he later stated that he did not see its potential. He also declined “M(asterisk)A(asterisk)S(asterisk)H” for the same reason.
“I haven’t made a lot of films.” “I don’t think I’ve made 20 films in a career of over 60 years,” he stated in 2021. “If I can’t see a film in my mind’s eye, I won’t do the film.”
According to “The Simpsons” writer and producer Mike Reiss, they learned Friedkin was a show fan and included a parody of “Sorcerer” in the Mr. Plough episode. “Years later, he came back to the show and charmed everyone, even appearing as a guest star,” Reiss wrote on social media.
A few years after “Sorcerer” reintroduced him to the world, he released another flop, “Cruising,” featuring Al Pacino as a detective who goes undercover to solve the horrible killings of numerous gay men. Gay rights activists objected to how it depicted homosexuality.
“To Live and Die in L.A.,” “Rules of Engagement,” and a T.V. version of the iconic play and Sidney Lumet’s film “12 Angry Men” were among his other film credits. Friedkin also directed episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” “Rebel Highway,” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”
He began working in local T.V. programs as a teenager after being born in Chicago on August 29, 1939. He was directing live concerts by the age of 16.
“My main influence was dramatic radio when I was a kid,” he noted in a 2001 interview. “I remember listening to it in the dark, with nothing but my imagination.” It was only sound. “I start with the sounds and then move on to the images.”
He transitioned from live events to documentaries with “The People Versus Paul Crump,” released in 1962. It was the story of a death row inmate who rehabilitates himself after being sentenced to death for the murder of a guard during a failed robbery at a Chicago food plant.
Friedkin was so delighted that producer David Wolper brought him to Hollywood to helm network T.V. shows.
Friedkin landed his first feature, 1967’s “Good Times,” after working on such shows as “The Bold Ones,” “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” and the documentary “The Thin Blue Line.” It was a joyful musical romp starring the pop superstars Sonny and Cher in their sole film appearance together.
He then performed “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” a play about backstage life at a burlesque theatre, and “The Birthday Party,” a comedy by Harold Pinter. He rose to prominence with 1970’s “The Boys in the Band,” a seminal picture about gay men.
“Not many directors can say they made a gay movie that people argue about decades later,” author and cinema historian Mark Harris said on social media. William Friedkin directed two films: Boys in the Band (which I like, but many don’t) and Cruising (which I dislike, but many do). That’s not insignificant.”
Friedkin had three brief marriages in the 1970s and 1980s to French actress Jeanne Moreau, British actress Lesley-Anne Down, with whom he had a son and longtime Los Angeles TV news reporter Kelly Lange. Lansing, a Paramount studio executive, married him in 1991.
Friedkin wrote an honest biography, “The Friedkin Connection,” in recent years and directed many well-received films based on Tracy Letts’s plays, including “Bug” and “Killer Joe,” starring Matthew McConaughey as a hit guy. And he wasn’t through yet: The Venice Film Festival will play the world premiere of “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” starring Kiefer Sutherland.
He was always willing to reminisce on his tumultuous career, especially as “The French Connection” celebrated its 50th anniversary. In 2021, Friedkin told NBC News that the legendary vehicle chase scenario was life-threatening and that he’d never do it again.
“We did everything you see. There was no computer-generated imagery back then. There was no way around it. “I just pressed the gas pedal, and we went 90 miles per hour in city traffic,” he explained.
“It’s a wonder that no one was wounded. I was not killed, and some of the crew members were not injured or murdered. That’s a risk I’d never take again. I was young, and I didn’t care. I went out and did it. I set out to create a terrific chase scenario without regard for the implications, and now I do.”
Friedkin’s effect on movies and popular culture lives on. This year, filmmaker David Gordon Green will release a new “Exorcist” picture, with Burstyn returning to her role.
Friedkin claimed he was never concerned about what critics said about him over the years.
“I really don’t live by what critics write, although I was aware of the critical reception of all of my films,” he said in 2013. “My perspective on the films I’ve made is based on what I accomplished rather than what I set out to do.”