NEW YORK: Speaking in his office above the Broadway theaters where he performed as a child, director Sidney Lumet was typically unpretentious in discussing his films, a body of work numbering more American classics than most have a right to contemplate.
“God knows I’ve got no complaints about my career,” Lumet said in 2006. “I’ve had a very good time and gotten some very good work done.”
An eminent craftsman, Lumet always referred to his more than 40 films as simple, understated “work.” Raised as an actor and molded in live television, he was a pragmatic director, eschewing ostentatious displays of style for sure-handed storytelling.
He rarely did more than two or three takes and usually cut “in the camera” – essentially editing while shooting – yet his efficient ways captured some of the greatest performances in American cinema: Al Pacino as Sonny Wortzik in “Dog Day Afternoon,” Peter Finch as Howard Beale in “Network,” Paul Newman as Frank Galvin in “The Verdict.”
His actors, with whom he always rehearsed for at least two weeks before starting production, won 17 Oscars for their performances in his films. The director was, in four nominations, always shut out until he was given a lifetime achievement award in 2005.
“I guess I’d like to thank the movies,” the director said in accepting the award.
Lumet, 86, died early Saturday in his Manhattan home after suffering from lymphoma.
The director was always closely associated with New York, where he shot many of his films, working far from Hollywood. The city was frequently a character in its own right in his films, from the crowds chanting “Attica!” on the hot city streets of “Dog Day Afternoon” to the hard lives and corruptibility of New York police officers in “Serpico,” “Prince of the City” and “Q&A.”
Fellow New York director Woody Allen called Lumet “definitely the quintessential New York filmmaker.”
“I’m constantly amazed at how many films of his prodigious output were wonderful and how many actors and actresses had their best work under his direction,” Allen said Saturday. “Knowing Sidney, he will have more energy dead than most live people.”
The director was born June 25, 1924, in Philadelphia to a pair of Yiddish stage performers, and he began his show business career as a child actor, appearing on radio at age 4 and making his Broadway debut in 1934 in Sidney Kingsley’s acclaimed “Dead End.”
After serving as a radar repairman in India and Burma during World War II, Lumet returned to New York and formed an acting company.
In 1950, Yul Brynner, a friend and a director at CBS-TV, invited him to join the network as an assistant director. Soon he rose to director, working on 150 episodes of the “Danger” thriller and other series.
Lumet then directed the historical re-enactment program “You Are There,” hosted by Walter Cronkite. Like Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann and other directors of television drama’s Golden Age, he transitioned to feature filmmaking.
Later, when Lumet directed the 1976 TV news satire “Network,” he would winkingly insist the dark tragicomedy wasn’t an exaggeration of the TV business but mere “reportage.”
The film was nominated for 10 Academy awards and won four.
Lumet immediately established himself as an A-list director with “12 Angry Men,” which took an early and powerful look at racial prejudice.
It garnered him his first Academy Award nomination.
Lumer’s other nominations were for directing “Network,” “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) and “The Verdict” and for his screenplay adaptation for 1981’s “Prince of the City.”
Lumet was awarded the Directors Guild of America’s prestigious D.W. Griffith Award for lifetime achievement in 1993.
His first three marriages ended in divorce: to actress Rita Gam, heiress Gloria Vanderbilt and Lena Horne’s daughter, Gail Jones. In 1980, he married journalist Mary Gimbel.
He is survived by his wife, daughters Jenny and Amy Lumet, stepchildren Leslie and Bailey Gimbel, nine grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.