We honor the Oscar winning director's brilliant yet brief career

After winning a Best Director Oscar in 1997 for The English Patient — only his third film — Anthony Minghella said, ”I’m never gonna do this again. I’ve peaked.” He was joking, of course, but his humility was 100 percent sincere. All he wanted to do, he explained, was ”get better at writing and filmmaking. I’ve made three movies…. I’m going to try to make 33.”

Sadly, Minghella never reached his goal. On March 18, at age 54, the British filmmaker died in a London hospital from a hemorrhage following surgery to remove a growth on his neck. ”It’s an unquantifiable loss,” says Scott Rudin, who partnered with Minghella and Sydney Pollack to produce the upcoming Kate Winslet-Ralph Fiennes drama The Reader. ”We talked a lot about the future. I knew very clearly where he wanted to go as an artist in the next 10 and 20 years. It’s hard to think of the world without all that work in it.”

Minghella’s love of film blossomed during his childhood on the Isle of Wight. The son of Italian ice cream makers, he sold gelato in the cinema next door to his family’s café one day, he happened to catch Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni. ”It was like a light went on,” he told EW in 2006. ”If you come from England, there’s such a reserve and coolness, and because my parents are Italian, I never could understand that. I Vitelloni has tragedy and farce and emotion. It was like finding a movie which talked directly to my own experience.”

A warm, intelligent man interested in ”everything from football to opera, films, music, [and] literature,” according to frequent collaborator Jude Law, Minghella met success in 1980s London as a playwright and TV script editor before his filmmaking debut, 1991’s touching Alan Rickman dramedy Truly, Madly, Deeply. After Patient won nine Oscars, he scored another nod for penning 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Four years later, his adaptation of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain earned seven nominations and a Best Supporting Actress win for Renée Zellweger. Last year, he directed and co-wrote a TV adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith’s best-seller The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana. (The project is due to air on HBO in 2009; Minghella had also begun work on yet another literary adaptation, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax. Its status is now unclear.) ”I will remember him smiling,” says Ladies star Anika Noni Rose. ”There was an innocence and freedom of a child in him. That’s what made his work beautiful.” — Additional reporting by Josh Rottenberg