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Michael Apted, Director of ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ and ‘Up’ Series of Documentaries, Dies at 79

Director michael apted Dead Obit
©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett C

Michael Apted, British director of the “Up” series of documentaries, as well as “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Gorillas in the Mist” (1988), James Bond film “The World Is Not Enough” (1999) and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (2010), has died, his agency Gersh confirmed. He was 79.

Apted directed three actors in performances that drew Academy Award nominations: Sissy Spacek in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Sigourney Weaver in “Gorillas in the Mist” and Jodie Foster in “Nell,” with Spacek going on to win the Oscar.

His “Up” series of documentaries for Granada Television, in which he profiled a varied group of young Britons and revisited them every seven years to what changes time had wrought, topped the list in the 2005 Channel 4 Program “The 50 Greatest Documentaries.”

Apted also served as president of the Directors Guild of America from 2003-09 and helped negotiate its contracts with producers.

DGA President Thomas Schlamme said in a statement, “Our hearts are heavy today as we mourn the passing of esteemed director, longtime DGA leader and my friend Michael Apted. His legacy will be forever woven into the fabric of cinema and our Guild. A fearless visionary as a director and unparalleled Guild leader, Michael saw the trajectory of things when others didn’t, and we were all the beneficiaries of his wisdom and lifelong dedication.

Apted had more recently directed a number of episodes of Showtime series “Ray Donovan” and “Masters of Sex” as well as the 2017 “Bourne”-style feature thriller “Unlocked,” which starred Noomi Rapace as a CIA interrogator.

“Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980), a biopic of Loretta Lynn taking as inspiration her huge-selling, autobiographical song that gives the film its title, brought Apted to the attention of Hollywood and moviegoers. In addition to Spacek’s Oscar win for best actress, the film was nominated for best picture, among other categories. It was also a substantial commercial success, with a domestic gross of $67 million in 1980.

His next film, the opposites-attract romantic comedy “Continental Divide,” was not an enormous popular success but has its fans among critics and ordinary moviegoers alike. Apted coaxed a gentle, vulnerable side out of John Belushi, who plays a hard-headed Chicago journalist who rustles the feathers of some bad men in town and takes his editor’s advice to skedaddle for a while; in the Rockies he encounters an eccentric eagle expert played by Blair Brown.

“Gorky Park” was an atmospheric mystery drama based on the best-selling novel by Martin Cruz Smith, starring William Hurt, Lee Marvin and Brian Dennehy and focused on a murder in Moscow. Variety said: “William Hurt is superb as a Moscow militia detective caught between his desires to be simply a good cop and the unfathomable motives of the secret Soviet government. Director Michael Apted sets Hurt up well with the discovery of three mutilated, faceless bodies in the city’s Gorky Park, leading Hurt to suspect this is all the affair of the dangerous KGB and much to be avoided by plodding policemen such as himself.”

“Gorillas in the Mist” (1988) was the true story of Dian Fossey, who studied mountain gorillas — and defended them from poachers — in one of Africa’s remotest corners for 18 years before tragedy ended her extraordinary exploits.

The film was nominated for five Oscars, including best actress for Weaver. “Gorillas in the Mist” was a decent performer at the worldwide box office, with $61 million in 1988.

In 1990’s “Class Action,” Apted spurred Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio to better-than-expected performances as father and daughter on opposite sides of a class action suit filed against an auto company by the maimed survivors of crashes in which the cars exploded on impact.

Apted had been turning in new entries in the “Up” series every seven years — his most recent at the time was 1991’s “35 Up” — and he had and would continue to make other movie-length documentaries to go with his feature film work. But in 1992 the director undertook an interesting experiment: a feature film, “Thunderheart,” starring Val Kilmer, Sam Shepard and Graham Greene, and a documentary, “Incident at Oglala,” that complemented one another on a number of levels.

“Thunderheart” was directed by Apted and penned by John Rusco. They, Roger Ebert said, “base their story on actual events in the Dakota reservations in the early 1970s when a militant group named American Indian Movement defied the FBI. This fictionalized version of the encounter involves a conspiracy to steal lands from the Indians, and the mechanics of the murder mystery and investigation are well worked out and involving.”

The Native American spokesman and organizer John Trudell appeared both in “Thunderheart” and in “Incident at Oglala.” As the New  York Times put it, “Thunderheart” “made highly dramatic use of Mr. Trudell’s furious, adamant demeanor; the quieter ‘Incident at Oglala’ is the film that explains it. This straightforward, meticulous documentary offers a detailed account of the violent events that led to the murders of two FBI agents in Oglala, S.D., in 1975, and the subsequent investigation that found Leonard Peltier guilty of the killings.

In 1994 Apted made the thriller “Blink,” centering on a beautiful violinist (Madeleine Stowe) who’s recently received corneal transplants enabling her to see, but her vision is not quite to be trusted yet, so she may have witnessed a serial killer and is thus endangered; a policeman (Aidan Quinn) seeks to protect her and find the culprit and inevitably falls in love with her.

The same year saw the release of the director’s movie “Nell,” about a woman (Jodie Foster) who has lived in a primitive wilderness all her life. Foster became the third star of an Apted film to earn an Oscar nomination for best actress.

Apted was hired to direct the 1999 James Bond film “The World Is Not Enough,” with Pierce Brosnan as 007. Though not considered among the top Bond films, it is remembered for its spectacular boat chase on the Thames River as well as the casting of Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist and a romantic interest for Brosnan’s Bond.

The director quickly rebounded with the intelligent 2001 thriller “Enigma,” set at Bletchley Park, where British cryptographers worked to break the Nazi code during World War II, with Tom Stoppard adapting a novel by Robert Harris. More ordinary was “Enough,” in which Jennifer Lopez’s battered wife trains in martial arts in order to finally kick the ass of her abusive, stalking ex (Billy Campbell).

In 2005 Apted directed three episodes of HBO series “Rome,” winning a DGA Award for outstanding directorial achievement in dramatic series — night in 2006.

His 2007 film “Amazing Grace” starred Ioan Gruffudd as 18th century reformer William Wilberforce, who helped bring about the end of slavery within the British Empire.

Apted also directed 2010’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” far and away the highest-grossing film in his oeuvre, with $415 million worldwide.

Michael David Apted was born in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, and earned a scholarship to study law and history at Downing College, Cambridge.

He began his career in television as a researcher-trainee at Granada Television in Manchester. One of his first projects at Granada led to what would become the “Up” series, which began in 1964 as a profile of 14 7-year-old children for the network’s current affairs series “World in Action.” As a researcher and assistant to Canadian director Paul Almond, Apted participated in the selection of the children. Apted directed the later episodes in the series, which had always been aimed at testing Apted’s thesis that the British class system remains largely in place, and is predicated on the Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will give you the man.”

The children profiled were chosen to represent the range of socioeconomic backgrounds in the U.K. at that time — and the explicit assumption underlying the longitudinal study was that a child’s social class predetermines his or her future. Apted, who was in his early 20s at the time, was only a researcher on the first film in the series, “7 Up,” but directed all subsequent entries.

From the International Documentary Association he won a 1985 IDA Award for “28 Up.” “56 Up,” produced in 2012, won a Peabody Award “for its creator’s patience and its subjects’ humanity.” The latest installment, “63 Up,” was broadcast on British television in June 2019.

While at Granada he made his directorial debut during his association with its series “World in Action” and made his fiction helming debut on a number of episodes of Granada’s soap opera “Coronation Street” in 1966-67.

He directed episodes of “ITV Sunday Night Theatre” and “ITV Playhouse,” which led to a 1976 gig directing a play, Harold Pinter’s “The Collection” in Granada’s series “Laurence Olivier Presents.” The staging starred Olivier, Malcolm McDowell, Alan Bates and Helen Mirren and was also presented on PBS’ “Great Performances.”

Apted made his feature directorial debut with 1972’s “The Triple Echo,” starring Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed, an intriguing but tonally uneven story of love and gender-bending in rural England during World War II. The director drew fine performances from Jackson and Reed but couldn’t decide whether he was making a sensitive tragedy or ribald tale.

He directed 1974 music-themed feature “Stardust,” which continued the story, begun in Claude Whatham’s “That’ll Be the Day,” of a “British musician who has elements of Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison mixed into a personality that isn’t strong enough to stand up under the demands of superstardom,” in the words of Roger Ebert. David Essex starred.

The director made the gritty British crime drama “The Squeeze” in 1977, starring Stacy Keach as an alcoholic ex-cop who tries to pull things together when his wife and daughter are kidnapped. David Hemmings and Edward Fox had the opportunity to play against type in unsavory roles, and Stephen Boyd played an Irish crime lord in his last film role; all distinguished themselves.

In 1979 Apted made “Agatha,” his first slick picture produced by a Hollywood studio (Warner Bros.), starring Vanessa Redgrave, Dustin Hoffman and Timothy Dalton in the speculative story of mystery writer Agatha Christie’s 1926 disappearance .

The next year, the success of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” firmly elevated Apted to the pantheon of A-list directors in Hollywood.

Apted made a wide variety of documentaries apart from the “Up” series.

“Bring on the Night” (1985) documents Stings first solo concert, and for it Apted and Sting shared a 1987 Grammy for best music video, long form.

His 1995 documentary “Moving the Mountain” recounted the student movement in China that led to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

“Inspirations” (1997) explored the creative process via discussions with seven artists from a variety of media: David Bowie, Roy Lichtenstein, Dale Chihuly, Edouard Locke, Louise LeCavalier, and Nora Noranjo-Morse all answer this question with respect to their particular artforms: “How do you create your problems, and how do you go about solving them?”

There was also “Me & Isaac Newton” (1999), “Married in America” (2003) and a 2006 sequel; soccer documentaries “The Fifa 2006 World Cup Film: The Grand Finale (2006) and “The Power of the Game” 2007; and “Bending the Light” (2014), about the art of still photography.

Apted was a member of the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (Documentary Branch) starting in 2002.

He received the Directors Guild of America’s Robert B. Aldrich Achievement Award, established in 1984 to recognize extraordinary service to the DGA and to its membership, in 2013, and won a Career Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association in 1999.

Apted was thrice married, the first time to Jo Apted, the second time to screenwriter Dana Stevens.

One of the director’s sons by Jo Apted, sound editor Paul Apted, died from colon cancer in 2014.

Apted is survived by third wife Paige Simpson, whom he married in January 2014; son Jim Apted from his marriage to Jo Apted; son John from his marriage to Stevens; and daughter Lily Mellis from a relationship with Tania Mellis; and four grandchildren.