The ultimate actor's director and his essential films

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated April 15, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

He was the ultimate actor's director. Over the course of Sidney Lumet's remarkable six-decade career, his leading men and women earned a stunning 18 Oscar nominations. He may not have been the showiest director. He never tried to dazzle audiences with flash and style. He didn't have to. Lumet knew the power of a great performance. And, not surprisingly, many of our most iconic actors — Al Pacino, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, Sean Connery — delivered some of their finest, most nuanced work in his films. Lumet, who died of lymphoma April 9 at the age of 86, was also a profound moralist, peppering his pop entertainments with conscience and humanity. The loss is a huge one. EW takes a look back at some of Lumet's most memorable films.

The Essentials

12 ANGRY MEN (1957)
Lumet began his singular career in the early '50s directing live TV, including episodes of Playhouse 90. His big-screen debut came with this slow-boil jury-room drama starring Henry Fonda. Tense, claustrophobic, and simmering with a dozen dynamite performances, 12 Angry Men established Lumet as an actor's director as well as a man of principle. Capturing lightning his first time out, he was nominated for Best Director and the film earned a Best Picture nod.

SERPICO (1973)
After the success of The Pawnbroker and Fail-Safe in the '60s, Lumet kicked off his most fertile decade, the '70s, with this gritty tale of police corruption starring an electric Al Pacino as an undercover cop shattering the blue wall of silence. A masterpiece.

Adapting Agatha Christie's train-set whodunit, Lumet tapped an all-star cast that included Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, and Albert Finney as Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. The mystery's plot is utterly preposterous, but the film allowed its director to stretch and was nominated for six Oscars.

Quite simply, one of the best films of the 1970s — a decade with no shortage of masterworks. Lumet reunited with Serpico star Al Pacino for this heist-gone-wrong flick about a pair of bungling New York City bank robbers out to score enough money to finance a sex-change operation for Pacino's gay lover (Chris Sarandon). Daring, raw, and perfect in every way. The only downside? It had to compete against One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in that year's Oscar race.

NETWORK (1976)
Lumet cemented his run as Hollywood's hottest director with this pitch-black media satire written by Paddy Chayefsky and starring William Holden, Faye Dunaway, and Peter Finch as mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-this-anymore prophet of the airwaves Howard Beale. What seemed outrageous upon its release now feels eerily prescient in our age of cable-news carny barkers.

Lumet had known Paul Newman since their TV days in the '50s, but the two didn't join forces until this brilliant (and bleak) courtroom classic about an alcoholic ambulance chaser who's handed the case of his career. One of Newman's best performances and Lumet's most powerful, poignant films.

Q&A (1990)
Returning to his signature themes — police corruption and the evil that men do — Lumet delivered an unrelentingly bleak and confoundingly underrated thriller with the help of Timothy Hutton, Armand Assante, and an unforgettably monstrous and amoral Nick Nolte.

Proving that he could still mix it up with the best of them at age 83, Lumet directed this indie crime drama centering on a pair of brothers (Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman) who scheme to rob their parents' jewelry store. But of course, it's about so much more, too. This is a Cain and Abel story told by a master of the modern-day tragedy.