Appreciation: Lumet weighed society’s failings

From the Variety Archives (subscription required): 1956: Lumet pacts with RKO for ’12 Angry Men’ | 1956: Production ad for ’12 Angry Men’ | 1973: Review of Lumet’s ‘Serpico’ | 1975: Ad for ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ | 1976: Review of ‘Network’

Director Sidney Lumet, who died Saturday of lymphoma, was the bigscreen’s prime purveyor of films that addressed themes of justice and the corruption of power, almost always in a New York setting. In films including “12 Angry Men,” “Serpico,” “Prince of the City,” “The Verdict” and “Q&A,” he explored the always-fragile justice system and the danger that men motivated by greed, prejudice or a thirst for power can pervert it.

Lumet died at his home in Manhattan. The prolific helmer of more than 40 films was 86.

The director was Oscar-nommed for “12 Angry Men,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network” and “The Verdict.” He never won an Academy Award for directing but was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2005. His other notable titles included “Serpico,” “The Pawnbroker” and “Prince of the City,” for which he was nommed for screenplay; his last film was 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”

Like the movies of Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, Lumet’s films often had a strong New York sensibility, and he rarely worked in Hollywood.

Known as an actor’s director, he was able to coax landmark performances — and 17 Oscar noms — from actors including Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda and Faye Dunaway. Yet his style deferred to the actors and the material, and he often stayed quietly in the background.

Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences president Frank Pierson said, “Lumet is one of the most important film directors in the history of American cinema, and his work has left an indelible mark on both audiences and the history of film itself.”

Directors Guild of America president Taylor Hackford said: “Sidney Lumet experienced filmmaking with a never-wavering enthusiasm for the form, the technology and perhaps most of all, a true respect for the actor. Even in his 80s, Lumet had delved into high-def digital filmmaking, recognizing the possibilities the new technology offered before many of his younger counterparts.”

Lumet was presented with the DGA’s Honorary Life Member Award in 1989 and the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993.

Lumet was a child actor onstage, first performing in the Yiddish theater, and appeared in the 1939 feature “One Third of a Nation” before serving in WWII. After the war, he directed Off Broadway theater and then, like Robert Altman, began directing early drama anthologies for television like “Studio One,” “Kraft Theatre” and “The Alcoa Hour.” For “Kraft,” he helmed an adaptation of “All the King’s Men” and some Tennessee Williams plays; for “The Best of Broadway,” he did “The Philadelphia Story” and “Stage Door.”

Lumet was one of the directors who segued from TV’s so-called golden age in the 1950s to the bigscreen and brought that speedy efficiency as well as love of dialogue and of actors to his feature work.

His first feature film, 1957 ensemble courtroom drama “12 Angry Men,” scored an Oscar nom, an early sign of Lumet’s skill in adapting theatrical productions for films. In 1960, he directed Brando in Williams adaptation “The Fugitive Kind,” as well as several TV dramas including the controversial “The Sacco-Vanzetti Story,” “Rashomon” and “The Iceman Cometh.”

“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1962) was another masterful theatrical adaptation, this time of Eugene O’Neill. Pic starred Jason Robards and the Oscar-nommed Hepburn.

His movies of the 1960s were often political in nature, including WWII pic “The Hill”; “Fail-Safe,” starring Fonda; and “The Pawnbroker,” for which Rod Steiger drew an Oscar nom.

Other stage adaptations during the decade and into the early ’70s included Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” in 1962, Chekhov’s “The Seagull” in 1968, Tennessee Williams’ “Last of the Mobile Hot Shots” (1970) and Robert Marasco’s “Child’s Play” (1972).

“Serpico” (1973), the story of a New York cop campaigning against corruption in the force, was one of his most iconic films, and netted an Oscar bid for star Al Pacino. In his autobiography, Lumet described the film as “a portrait of a real rebel with a cause.”

After a number of diverse features, including the sumptuous period mystery “Murder on the Orient Express,” Lumet again cast Pacino in a starring role, this time in “Dog Day Afternoon,” based on the true story of a bank robbery gone wrong. The pic, which Pauline Kael called “one of the best New York movies ever made,” won a screenplay Oscar and was nommed for five more.

His next film, 1976’s prescient, scathingly satiric and much-quoted “Network,” starring Dunaway and Peter Finch, was one of Lumet’s few successful comedies, winning four Oscars and nominated for six more.

More legit adaptations followed, including “Equus” and 1978’s “The Wiz,” starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. Lumet was Oscar nominated again, this time for writing gritty 1981 cop pic “Prince of the City,” then he tried on yet another legit adaptation with “Deathtrap.”

“The Verdict,” starring Paul Newman, returned Lumet to the courtroom setting and netted five Oscar noms; Lumet elicited from Newman one of his finest performances. “Running on Empty” from 1988 was a return to 1960s revolutionary values, while “Family Business,” “A Stranger Among Us” and “Guilty as Sin” were less well received as studies in crime and justice. Another corrupt police-themed pic, “Night Falls on Manhattan,” drew more approval.

He directed a 1999 remake of John Cassavetes’ “Gloria,” this time with Sharon Stone in the title role, and also tried episodic television with New York-set A&E courtroom series “100 Centre Street” during the 2001-02 season.

At age 83, he was still going strong with 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” a well-received independently financed drama starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke.

The director had an eye for talent. In 1966 “The Group” showcased young thesps including Candice Bergen, Larry Hagman and Jessica Walter. Michael Jackson had his only starring role in a film in “The Wiz,” and River Phoenix drew attention in 1988’s “Running on Empty.” The director also helped spotlight actors who’d been around by giving them central roles (e.g., Beatrice Straight) or helping them break typecasting, such as Sean Connery (they did five films together); Hepburn in “Long Day’s Journey”; and Vin Diesel in “Find Me Guilty.”

Born in Philadelphia, Lumet studied at the Professional Children’s School and Columbia U. in New York. His parents were actors in Yiddish theater, and Lumet made his debut on radio at 4 and onstage at 5.

His 1996 book “Making Movies” was a light-hearted, common-sense look at the process of filmmaking.

Lumet was married four times: to actress Rita Gam; to socialite Gloria Vanderbilt; to Gail Jones, daughter of Lena Horne, with whom he had two daughters, Amy, a sound editor, and actress-screenwriter Jenny; and finally to Mary Gimbel, who survives him. He is also survived by stepdaughter Leslie Gimbel; a stepson, Bailey Gimbel; nine grandchildren; and a greatgrandson. 

A Look Back


“12 Angry Men,” Lumet’s firstfeature film, draws him an Oscar nom for best director.


Lumet gains notoriety for NBC’s “The Sacco-Vancetti Trial,” which is controversial because it implies the executed pair were innocent.


“Serpico” explores police corruption in an adaptation of true story starring Al Pacino.


“Dog Day Afternoon” is Lumet’s most “flamboyant” New York movie, says Vincent Canby; Oscar nom for director.


Satire “Network” prophesies the future excesses of TV;pic wins four Oscars; Lumet is nommed for best director.


“Prince of the City” depicts a crumbling, cynical justice system; Lumet shares nom for best screenplay.


Ultimately optimistic film “The Verdict” shows that ordinary people can defeat endemic corruption in the legal system; Lumet draws directing nom.