Alan J. Pakula, who enjoyed acclaim as both a producer (“To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Up the Down Staircase”) and director (“Klute,” “All the President’s Men,” “Sophie’s Choice”), died Thursday in a car accident on the Long Island Expressway. He was 70.
Pakula lost control of his 1995 Volvo when a metal pipe crashed through the windshield and hit him, causing him to crash into a fence. He was pronounced dead at North Shore Hospital in Plainview, N.Y.
Police theorized the pipe had been lying in the roadway and that the car ahead of Pakula’s sent it flying.
The soft-spoken and introspective filmmaker in the last few years was headquartered in New York City after many decades in Los Angeles. At the time of his death, he was working on the script for “No Ordinary Time,” based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, which he also planned to direct.
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Starting with the 1957 movie “Fear Strikes Out,” he worked as a producer teamed with director Robert Mulligan. He made his debut as a director with 1969’s “The Sterile Cuckoo,” eventually helming 16 films, and producing the majority of them. In addition, he scripted four of his directing efforts: “Sophie’s Choice” (1982), “See You in the Morning” (1989), “Presumed Innocent” (1990) and “The Pelican Brief” (1993). His last film was last year’s “The Devil’s Own,” starring Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt.
Pakula was known as an actor’s director, for pulling award-caliber performances from his casts. He was responsible for the first of Jane Fonda’s Oscars for “Klute,” Jason Robards’ for “All the President’s Men” and Meryl Streep’s second Academy Award for “Sophie’s Choice.” He also turned around the career of Candice Bergen with her Oscar-nominated turn in the comedy “Starting Over” in 1979.
Perf over style
His films covered a wide spectrum of genres and, though they varied in quality, all featured strong production values, high-profile casts and thoughtful subject matters. While they were stylish, they were never self-consciously so: Pakula once said if the style got in the way of the performances, he would tone it down.
Pakula began his film career, curiously, in the executive suite. He was born on April 7, 1928, in the Bronx, and grew up on Long Island and Manhattan. After he graduated from Yale U. in 1948, he went to Hollywood as an assistant in the cartoon department at Warner Bros. While at WB, he directed the Los Angeles Circle Theatre production of “Antigone.” It was seen by producer-director-writer Don Hartman, who, in 1950, hired Pakula to read scripts for him at MGM. When Hartman became head of production at Paramount, he took Pakula with him. Under the tutelage of Dore Schary, by 1956, Pakula had started his own production company.
His first project was “Fear Strikes Out,” the struggle of baseball player Jim Piersall, who was played by Anthony Perkins. He signed a young television director, Robert Mulligan, to helm. After the film’s success in 1957, they formed Pakula-Mulligan Prods.
Their biggest hit was 1962’s “Mockingbird.” They also did well with the Natalie Wood/Steve McQueen dramatic romance “Love With the Proper Stranger.”
In 1969, Pakula began his own directing career with the quirky “The Sterile Cuckoo,” Liza Minnelli’s first major vehicle. His second movie, in 1971, based on an original screenplay and shot by his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Gordon Willis, was “Klute” with Fonda and Donald Sutherland.
“Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing” got poor notices and did little business, as was true of his conspiracy thriller “The Parallax View” in 1974, though the film has gathered fans and critical recognition over the years.
The following year, Pakula made what some consider his finest film, “All the President’s Men,” about the uncovering of the Watergate scandal. Starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, the film brought him an Oscar nomination and a best director citation from the New York Film Critics Circle.
Pakula’s next couple of films with Fonda, “Comes a Horseman” and “Rollover,” were poorly received, though “Starting Over” in 1979 with Burt Reynolds, Jill Clayburgh and Bergen, based on Dan Wakefield’s novel, benefited from a strong comedic script by James L. Brooks.
In 1982, Pakula regained some of his luster with a self-penned adaptation of William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice.”
Pakula’s next three films, “Dream Lover,” “Orphans” and “See You in the Morning,” were among Pakula’s weakest. Then he rebounded with the Scott Turow thriller “Presumed Innocent,” (which he also co-wrote) starring Harrison Ford, which was a major hit in 1990. His 1993 adaptation of John Grisham’s “The Pelican Brief” starring Julia Roberts was his highest-grossing movie ever, topping $100 million.
Pakula was married to actress Hope Lange from 1963-69 and then author Hannah Cohn Boorstin in 1973. Though he never had children of his own, he helped raise Lange’s two children by actor Don Murray and Boorstin’s three children from a former marriage.
Survivors include wife Hannah, stepchildren Robert Boorstin, Louis Boorstin, Anna Boorstin Brugge, Chris Murray and Patricia Murray, and six grandchildren.
(Timothy Gray contributed to this report.)