William Friedkin, a leading figure of the New Hollywood movement who won an Oscar for directing The French Connection and received another nomination for directing The Exorcist, died on Monday. He was 87.
Friedkin's wife, Sherry Lansing, the former head of Paramount Pictures, confirmed to The New York Times that the filmmaker died of heart failure and pneumonia at his home in Bel Air.
Born in Chicago on Aug. 25, 1935, Friedkin was the son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. He fell in love with movies as a young man, but truly devoted himself to cinema after seeing Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. After high school, he took a job in the mailroom of local television station WGN. By the age of 18, he was directing TV shows and live performances.
After beginning his career in documentaries in the early '60s, Friedkin made his feature debut with 1967's Good Times, a sendup of the movies starring Sonny and Cher. But the director would make a name for himself amongst the risk-takers of the New Hollywood movement — filmmakers like Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Ford Coppola — by helming two of the biggest box office hits of the 1970s, beginning with 1971's The French Connection.
Impressed by Friedkin's background, producer Philip D'Antoni tapped him to direct the neo-noir crime drama, The French Connection, based on the true story of two NYPD officers who broke up an international heroin ring. Friedkin cast then-unknown actors Gene Hackman as Jimmy Doyle and Roy Scheider as Buddy Russo, and working with an extremely tight budget, approached shooting the film like a documentary.
In a 2016 conversation with Christopher McQuarrie, hosted by the Academy, Friedkin recalled, "I worked with Hackman in a way that I've never worked with anyone else. I knew I had to get him angry, and so, I would — it's really embarrassing, but instead of saying 'cut,' I would say things to Gene like, 'Jesus Christ, are you kidding me?' I would say, 'Pal, you better get a day job. You better look for something, because this isn't working out.' And he actually quit the film on the second day."
"I would get his anger to the point where he would finish a take filled with rage and then walk off the set for the rest of the day," he shared. "And that's exactly what I wanted... Don't think for a moment that I'm telling you that I coaxed this performance out of him. What a director does is try to provide a mood, an atmosphere for the actor to do their best work."
The French Connection received eight nominations at the 44th Oscars and won five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director for Friedkin, Best Actor for Hackman, Best Adapted Screenplay for Ernest Tidyman, and Best Film Editing for Gerald B. Greenberg.
"This is a tremendous honor and I'm very proud to accept it," Friedkin said onstage while accepting his Oscar. "I'm proud, too, of the people that helped me to make The French Connection: The people of Twentieth Century-Fox; the entire cast and crew, especially Roy Scheider and Gene Hackman for their fine performances; Jerry Greenberg, for his cutting; Owen Roizman, for his photography. But most of all, I would like to thank the man who made it all possible — not only made it possible for the picture to be made but for me to direct it. I owe it all to him. His name is Phil D'Antoni. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen."
When the film was awarded Best Picture, D'Antoni said, "Well, it's obviously a great honor to think that The French Connection will rank with all the pictures that have come to this particular place in the history of the Oscars... I still don't believe it."
A year after winning the Oscar, Friedkin followed up The French Connection with The Exorcist, a horror film based on William Peter Blatty's best-selling novel about a 12-year-old girl possessed by a demon. Upon its release, the film became one of Hollywood's top-grossing movies. To this day, The Exorcist remains one of the highest grossing horror films ever made. At the Academy's 45th anniversary screening of The Exorcist in 2018, Friedkin appeared alongside star Ellen Burstyn and said, "I think one of the reasons you're here tonight is because we're all curious about the possibility of the supernatural. I certainly was."
Reflecting on the experience of making the film, he said, "You can't make a film like this and blow. You've got to keep total control. You can't be out of control, out of your mind… It took 10 months to film this picture, because none of the effects had ever been done before. There was nothing to lean on."
The Exorcist became the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture. It also received nominations for Best Director, Best Actress for Burstyn, Best Supporting Actress for Blair, and Best Supporting Actor for Jason Miller, amongst 10 total Oscar nominations. It won Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound.
"I don't know how many of you believe in God, but those of us who have made films and have had some success certainly believe in the movie god," Friedkin said at the anniversary screening. "And I believe it was the movie god who brought Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair to the film."
After the back-to-back releases of The French Connection and The Exorcist, Friedkin was one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood. His next film was 1977's Sorcerer, a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear. (The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Sound.) His other features include Cruising (1980), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), Bug (2006), and 2011's Killer Joe.
Friedkin's final film, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, will premiere out of competition during the upcoming 80th Venice International Film Festival. Friedkin adapted the maritime drama from the play by Herman Wouk, starring Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Clarke, and the late Lance Reddick.
Friedkin is survived by his wife, Sherry Lansing, and two sons, Jackson and Cedric.