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Sidney Lumet, director of film classics, dies at 86

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Sidney Lumet
Freestyle Releasing/Everett Collection

Sidney Lumet, whose career behind the camera encompassed classics stretching from his 1957 Best Picture nominee 12 Angry Men to the acclaimed 2007 drama Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, has died at age 86, according to the New York Times, citing his stepdaughter. The cause was lymphoma.

Lumet was the quintessential actor’s director. Over the course of his brilliant 60-year career, the New York filmmaker behind some of the most energetic, innovative, and flat-out greatest films of the 1960s and ‘70s, snagged 18 Academy Award nominations for his leading men and women, including Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, Ingrid Bergman in Murder on the Orient Express, and Paul Newman in The Verdict. Still, he was often overlooked on the other side of the camera, never winning a statuette himself besides the honorary Oscar he was given in 2005.

Lumet was born in Philadelphia in 1924. Show business was in his blood — his father was an actor and his mother was a dancer — and he quickly followed their lead into the family business, making his acting debut at age 4 in the Yiddish theater in New York. In his 20s, after a string of promising parts on stage and screen, he splintered off from Lee Strasberg’s famous Actor’s Studio in frustration and started his own Method-oriented acting troupe that included future stars Yul Brynner and Eli Wallach. But soon, Lumet realized that his future laid behind the camera not in front of it.

After breaking in to the profession by directing live television in the early ‘50s like his peers Robert Altman and John Frankenheimer, Lumet made his feature directing debut with 1957’s 12 Angry Men, a tense and claustrophobic drama set in a jury room that earned a Best Picture nomination as well as a Best Director nod for Lumet. It was to be the first of many dates with Oscar, even though Lumet always had mixed feelings about the honor. “It’s a great rat f—,” Lumet told EW in 2008. “I never thought I was going to win and so far I haven’t! And yet, when you get into the limo, on the ride over you’ve somehow convinced yourself that you have a chance.”

During the ‘60s and early ‘70s, Lumet cemented his place as one of Hollywood’s leading filmmakers, guiding Rod Steiger to an Oscar nomination in 1965’s The Pawnbroker and helping reshape Sean Connery’s post-007 career in 1965’s The Hill and 1971’s The Anderson Tapes. Then, in 1973, Lumet teamed up with Al Pacino — his muse from that wonderful celluloid decade — in Serpico, the gritty Gotham story of a lone honest cop. The next year he corralled an all-star cast for his lavish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, which earned six Oscar nominations. And the year after that, he directed Pacino again in Dog Day Afternoon — a sweaty, nail-biting masterpiece about a bank robbery gone awry. Again, Oscar nods game by the bushel. “I think it’s Al’s best performance,” Lumet told EW. “We lost to [One Flew Over the] Cuckoo’s Nest. Damn good film. You can’t feel bad about losing to that.”

While that run in the first half of the ‘70s would be enough to earn any director a place in film history, Lumet wasn’t done. The next year, in 1976, he delivered Network, a blistering satire and not-so-veiled indictment of the medium — television — that gave him his start. The film earned 10 Oscar nominations, but lost the big one to that year’s Cinderella story, Rocky. After a mix of hits and misses, he bounced back in 1982 with The Verdict, a bleak portrayal of an ambulance-chasing Boston lawyer (Paul Newman) who gets an unlikely shot at redemption with a medical malpractice case. Like so many of Lumet’s actors before him, Newman was nominated for the Oscar.

During the latter half of the ‘80s into the ‘90s and the first decade of the new millenium, Lumet continued to make films at an age when most directors either rest on their laurels or grapple with the artist they’d once been. He was tireless and still held the spark of creation, hopscotching from one genre to the next, whether it was thrillers (1986’s The Morning After), Serpico-esque corruption parables (1990’s Q&A), or dark crime tragedies (2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). It was on the eve of that last film’s release that the then-83-year-old was asked by EW how he continues to make movies at his advanced age. His response was classic Lumet. ”I know people are amazed because we’re so obsessed with youth, but honestly, I don’t know why anyone’s surprised.”

More on life and career of Sidney Lumet from EW:

Sidney Lumet was the quintessential New York filmmaker, a prince of the city who captured our flawed souls

Sidney Lumet Talks About His Oscar-Nominated Films (from EW archive, January 2008)

Sidney Lumet’s Q&A: Owen Gleiberman revisits review of 1990 film

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