Don Siegel, 78, one of Hollywood’s leading action film directors, responsible for the classics “Dirty Harry” and the original “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers,” died April 20 in Nipoma, Calif., after a long illness.
Known for stylish B pictures made during the 1950s like “Body Snatchers,” Siegel graduated to directing top stars like Richard Widmark, Clint Eastwood (in five films), Charles Bronson, Walter Matthau, John Wayne, Burt Reynolds and Bette Midler.
Born in Chicago, Siegel’s father was a famous mandolin player and his parents ran a music correspondence school. He was educated in England at Jesus College, Cambridge, and London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Siegel broke into show business in 1933 at Warner Bros., where he was hired by Hal Wallis as an assistant film librarian. He moved up through the ranks, working as an assistant editor and chief of the insert department, to form and head up the company’s montage department.
In the early 1940s, Siegel worked on the montage sequences of such films characterizing the tough WB style as “Casablanca,” “City For Conquest,” ‘Passage To Marseille” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
After directing short films, including the Oscar-winning 1945 film “Star In The Night” and “Hitler Lives?” Siegel got his first feature assignment at Warners in 1946 helming the mystery “The Verdict,” teaming Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Three years later he directed a WB adaptation of Philip Wylie’s “Night Unto Night,” starring Ronald Reagan and Viveca Lindfors. Siegel and Lindfors married and had a son, Kristoffer Tabori, who became an actor. The marriage ended in divorce and Siegel remarried twice, first to Doe Avedon.
His next feature was the reteaming of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer (after Jacques Tourneur’s classic “Out Of The Past”) at RKO in “The Big Steal,” production of which was overshadowed by Mitchum’s well-publicized scrapes with the law over marijuana possession.
Siegel moved to Universal to helm a programmer Western, “Duel At Silver Creek” with Audie Murphy, followed by an RKO melodrama lensed in Austria, “No Time For Flowers” starring Lindfors.
Still at RKO, he helmed the minor thriller “Count The Hours,” starring Teresa Wright and Macdonald Carey, followed by the espionage pic “China Venture” for Columbia, toplining Edmond O’Brien and Barry Sullivan.
He first achieved critical acclaim in 1954 with his tough prison pic “Riot In Cell Block 13” for producer Walter Wanger. Siegel next worked for Ida Lupino and Collier Young’s indie banner, The Filmmakers, on the thriller “Private Hell 36,” starring Lupino, Howard Duff and Steve Cochran.
An uncharacteristic romance, “An Annapolis Story,” followed for Allied Artists, starring Diana Lynn opposite John Derek and Kevin McCarthy.
McCarthy returned as the lead of Siegel’s next picture, produced by Wanger, the sci-fi thriller “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.” This 1956 AA release is considered the definitive Cold War paranoia film and was remade in 1978 by Philip Kaufman with both Siegel and McCarthy popping up in cameo roles. The original was an early credit as assistant director for Sam Peckinpah.
Also at Allied Artists in 1956, Siegel directed the successful film adaptation of Reginald Rose’s tv play “Crime In The Streets,” featuring John Cassavetes, James Whitmore, Sal Mineo and Mark Rydell. Also well-received was Siegel’s 1957 gangster picture “Baby Face Nelson,” a UA release with Mickey Rooney.
After the forgettable Paramount romance “Spanish Affair” with Richard Kiley, Siegel reteamed with Audie Murphy in UA’s “The Gun Runners,” a remake of “To Have And Have Not.”
For Columbia in 1958, he made the sleek actioner “The Lineup,” an adaptation (by Stirling Silliphant) from a successful CBS-TV series, with Warner Anderson, Emile Meyer and Eli Wallach. Siegel had directed the tv pilot for the series in 1954.
His next feature was a picturesque thriller starring Cornel Wilde, “Edge Of Eternity,” also for Columbia. For Fox he helmed “The Hound Dog Man,” featuring Fabian at the height of his recording career success, and followed in 1960 with an Elvis Presley Western, “Flaming Star,” also at Fox. Besides “The Lineup,” Siegel worked occasionally in tv during the ’50s and ’60s, beginning with “The Doctors” in 1953. In ’61 he directed the “Code Three” pilot and an episode of “Frontier.”
Later tv credits include segments of “The Visitor,” “Breaking Point,” “The Twilight Zone,” “The Lloyd Bridges Show,” an adaptation of the William Inge play “Bus Stop” starring Tuesday Weld, as well as the pilot for “Destroy.”
In 1966, he produced and directed the pilot for “Convoy,” unrelated to the Peckinpah film made a decade later. He also helmed the pilot of “The Legend Of Jesse James” and produced a full year of the series in 1966.
Steve McQueen and Bobby Darin teamed in Siegel’s 1962 Paramount war picture “Hell Is For Heroes,” which introed Bob Newhart. Two years later he directed a Universal remake of the classic Ernest Hemingway story “The Killers,” which turned out to be Reagan’s final feature film. Shot as an early example of a made-for-tv movie, pic was deemed too violent for the small screen and was released theatrically.
Siegel directed two other tv movies in the mid-’60s, “The Hanged Man,” starring Edmond O’Brien in a remake of Robert Montgomery’s “Ride The Pink Horse”; and “Stranger On The Run,” starring Henry Fonda and scripted by Reginald Rose.
The director made two key films in 1968 for Universal, the studio he most frequently worked for during the remainder of his career. “Madigan” starred Richard Widmark as a cop at the end of his tether and positioned Siegel for preeminence in the policier genre. “Coogan’s Bluff’ teamed Siegel for the first time with Eastwood in only the second film (following the Western “Hang ‘Em High”) by the actor since his international success in Sergio Leone’s trilogy of Italian Westerns.
A prototype for the Dennis Weaver tv series “McCloud,” “Coogan’s Bluff” had Eastwood as the fish-out-of water sheriff on the loose in Manhattan trying to bring back escaped prisoner Don Stroud. Siegel and Eastwood reached career peaks three years later in the director’s biggest hit, the controversial “Dirty Harry.” Originally a project designed for Frank Sinatra, the definitive maverick cop pic “Dirty Harry,” from Warner Bros., was labeled “fascist” by some critics but struck a nerve with audiences as part of a cycle of violent pics released in late ’71 (“The French Connection,” “A Clockwork Orange”). Siegel was not involved in any of the sequels Eastwood made in the late ’80s.
Prior to “Dirty Harry,” Siegel completed the direction, begun by Robert Totten, of the 1969 Universal Western “Death Of A Gunfighter,” starring Widmark and Lena Horne. Pic went out credited to the nonexistent “Allen Smithee” as director. Eastwood and Siegel then made in Mexico “Two Mules For Sister Sarah,” a romantic Western for Universal co-starring Shirley MacLaine. Also for Universal in 1970, he and Eastwood teamed for an adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s gothic novel “The Beguiled” in which Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman and the women at their Southern girls’ school during the Civil War kept a wounded Union soldier as their captive. The film went counter to Eastwood’s screen image and was a boxoffice failure.
(Eastwood’s first directing assignment was a short documentary film about “The Beguiled”; his feature directorial debut, “Play Misty For Me,” also at Universal, featured Siegel as a kindly bartender.)
Siegel’s next pic for Universal was a personal one, “Charley Varrick,” starring Walter Matthau as “the last of the independents.” The crime tale, co-starring Joe Don Baker and featuring one of Siegel’s familiar cameo roles wearing a funny hat, received good notices but did not attract big audiences. A 1980 Dutch tv documentary about the director was titled “Don Siegel – Last Of The Independents.”
Also failing was his British-lensed spy thriller for Universal, “The Black Windmill,” toplining Michael Caine.
Siegel received a plum assignment in 1976, “The Shootist” for Paramount, a melancholy Western that turned out to be John Wayne’s final movie. He next shot for MGM an adaptation by Peter Hyams and Stirling Silliphant of Walter Wager’s espionage thriller “Telefon,” with Charles Bronson and Lee Remick. Siegel experimented with a lengthy and complex exterior tracking shot that lasted over five minutes, but the scene was edited into several shots in the film’s release version.
Eastwood returned in 1979 with one of the duo’s best pictures, “Escape From Alcatraz.” The Paramount hit, scripted by Richard Tuggle, was widely praised and featured the work of frequent Siegel/Eastwood collaborators Bruce Surtees (cinematographer) and composer Lalo Schifrin. It also was a rare case of Siegel being credited as producer on one of his features.
Eastwood said of his mentor: “Knowing Don and working with him on so many films has been a privilege and a pleasure. His sense of story, his great professionalism, his wit and his friendship will all be deeply missed by me and innumerable other members of the motion picture community.”
With the success of his Eastwood pictures, Siegel became much in demand as a director for A-level properties.
Among the many projects for which he was signed or announced to direct in the ’70s but did not ultimately make are a Michael Caine vehicle, “Limey”; “The First Deadly Sin” (ultimately filmed by Brian G. Hutton); “Paradise Mountain”; “The Night I Caught The Santa Fe Chief; “The Sentinel” (filmed instead by Michael Winner); “The Stone Leopard”; “Strange Peaches”; “I, Tom Horn” (later made as both a Steve McQueen feature and David Carradine tv movie); “The Boat” (directed by Wolfgang Petersen as “Das Boot”); and the yet-to-be made Allan Carr project “Silence.”
In 1980 he also was announced as director of “Alien 2,” but the sequel was shot five years later by James Cameron instead, as “Aliens.”
Siegel’s final two films were unpleasant experiences for him. In 1980 he directed for Paramount and producer David Merrick a big-budget actioner, “Rough Cut,” starring Burt Reynolds and Lesley-Anne Down. Blake Edwards was the original director on the project three years earlier, but Siegel eventually got the job. Merrick fired Siegel during production but reinstated him at the helm. After the picture was completed, Merrick wanted a new ending; Siegel refused and Robert Ellis Miller shot the tacked-on finale. Reportedly Hal Needham also worked on the picture, which went out with a pseudonymous screenplay credit when Larry Gelbart took his name off the finished product.
Siegel had even more trouble with “Jinxed,” UA pic in which stars Bette Midler and Ken Wahl had a much-publicized feud. Siegel suffered a heart attack during the filming and his old friend Sam Peckinpah directed some of the film without credit. Final result was a flop. Screenwriter Frank D. Gilroy removed his name from the credits.
Siegel retired and worked on his memoirs following “Jinxed,” and was one of many director cameos in John Landis’ 1984 film “Into The Night.”
Survived by his wife, Carol, son Kristoffer Tabori and four other children, Nowell, Anne, Katherine and Jack.