John Frankenheimer, director of such Hollywood classics as “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Birdman of Alcatraz,” died Saturday in Los Angeles of a stroke due to complications following spinal surgery. He was 72.
Of all the filmmakers who made their names in the classic days of live TV drama, Frankenheimer stands as one of the very few who remained a vital force into the new millennium. His nearly five-decade career had three distinct phases: the first in TV drama, followed by a highly regarded run of feature films in the 1960s and then — following a lengthy slump — a return in the ’90s to movies and longform TV.
Frankenheimer, whose work ranged from social dramas to political thrillers, was nominated for 14 Emmys; he won four.
A native New Yorker, Frankenheimer was active in theater at Williams College, graduating in 1951. He got his first taste of directing movies while in the Air Force stationed in Burbank. He worked on some documentaries and in 1953 walked into the CBS office in New York and persuaded network officials to give him a chance as an assistant director.
Frankenheimer moved from weather and news programming to television shows. He directed a string of 152 live television dramas in the ’50s. His early credits included 42 episodes of the “Playhouse 90” anthology series, and his success with political thrillers followed.
“The Manchurian Candidate” (1962), a satirical thriller about a Korean War brainwashing victim and a communist conspiracy to take over the government, is the film for which Frankenheimer is best known. That same year he made “Birdman of Alcatraz,” starring Burt Lancaster, about a convicted murderer who became an expert on birds.
Two years later came another highly regarded political thriller, “Seven Days in May,” which starred Lancaster as a renegade general planning a coup. Other films included “Seconds,” “Black Sunday” and “The Train.”
“John Frankenheimer chose a camera as his form of expression. For those of us who loved movies, thank God he did,” said Frank Mancuso Sr., former chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures and MGM. “His passionate commitment to filmmaking provided the world with many treasures. To those of us who knew John, while these cinematic treasures remain, we have lost a great friend and inspiration.”
In the 1970s, Frankenheimer ran into some personal difficulties following the assassination of close friend Robert F. Kennedy. While in L.A., Kennedy stayed at Frankenheimer’s house, and Frankenheimer drove him to the Ambassador Hotel the night he was killed in 1968.
Frankenheimer later acknowledged he had a drinking problem and attributed his worst mistakes of judgment to his alcoholism.
Following a series of disappointing films such as “Prophecy,” “The Challenge,” “Dead-Bang” and “Year of the Gun,” job offers dried up in the ’80s, and Frankenheimer had to work to re-establish himself.
In the 1990s, following the re-release of “The Manchurian Candidate” and a critical reappraisal, Frankenheimer returned to television and found new success directing movies for HBO. His most recent, “Path to War,” about the Johnson administration’s escalation of the war in Vietnam, premiered in May.
His newfound success with HBO earned him four consecutive Emmys, starting in 1993 for “Against the Wall,” followed by “The Burning Season,” “Andersonville” and “George Wallace.” In 1998 “George Wallace” won a Peabody Award and a Golden Globe for best television film.
Frankenheimer is expected to be inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in November.
“I have been on John Frankenheimer’s sets for all of my career,” said Daily Variety‘s Army Archerd. “He always made the press welcome. His enthusiasm was unmatched on any project on which he was involved. His love for the business and all the creative talents I will personally miss. Although he had every credit in the world behind him, he was always seeking to prove something new and exciting. He is a great loss, and I lost a friend.”
Frankenheimer had a mischievous side to him. During the gas crisis, when California established carpool lanes on many of its freeways, he had his art director create a dummy, which he placed in the back of his Mercedes Benz. Frankenheimer sat behind the wheel, wearing a chauffeur’s cap, and drove to the studio using the carpool lanes.
He was venerated by fellow directors as the ultimate expert on how to wangle the best deal from studios. He liked to hold court on hotel suites — advising others on which hotels had the most princely suites that studios would still be willing to pay for.
The son of a stockbroker, the tall, good-looking Frankenheimer was a superb tennis player who lived a patrician life. He was also a great chef and master of other sybaritic pleasures.
“The DGA is greatly saddened by the passing of John Frankenheimer,” Directors Guild prexy Martha Coolidge said. “In addition to being an extraordinary director for over 50 years, he was one of the most active and important members of our guild. … John’s passion for filmmaking, and his appetite for life, were without equal. He was one of those rarest of people who, simply put, can never be replaced.”
Frankenheimer is survived by his wife of 41 years, Evans, two daughters, a grandson, a sister and a brother.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)