9 April 2011 9:55 AM, PDT | IMDb News

Director Sidney Lumet, whose gritty portraits of New York City earned him four Oscar nominations for Best Director for films such as Dog Day Afternoon and Network, died Saturday of lymphoma at his home in Manhattan; he was 86. Synonymous with the New York filmmaking scene, Lumet prowled the streets of his adopted hometown in a wide variety of films, working in the nascent medium of television in the early 1950s before making his feature film directorial debut in 1957 with the cinematic adaptation of the jury room classic 12 Angry Men, starring Henry Fonda. That film earned Lumet his first Oscar nomination and started a prolific career that would take him through crime dramas, Broadway and literary adaptations, occasional Hollywood films, and lacerating satires.

Born in Philadelphia to parents who were in show business -- his father was an actor and director, his mother a dancer -- he appeared in numerous Broadway plays as a child and young adult before serving three years in the Army during World War II and returning to New York to direct. Lumet's directorial style, described as "lightning quick" in an era when American cinema was still burdened by the limitations of decorative and expensive Hollywood films, earned him a successful career in television, where he adapted numerous plays for such early shows as Playhouse 90 and Studio One, and worked with the young Walter Cronkite on the news series You Are There. He directed a TV version of 12 Angry Men before turning it into a successful 1957 film, starring Henry Fonda as the lone dissenting juror in a murder trial; the film earned three Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Director and Screenplay) and singlehandedly established Lumet's cinematic directing career.

Lumet alternated film and television work in the late 1950s and early 1960s -- including a television version of The Iceman Cometh starring Jason Robards -- before helming a number of acclaimed cinematic films in the early 1960s: the devastating adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962) starring Katharine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson; the New York drama The Pawnbroker (1964), which earned Rod Steiger a Best Actor Oscar nomination; and the nuclear drama Fail-Safe (also 1964), starring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau. Through the late 1960s and early 1970s some of Lumet's work was uneven -- adaptations of bestsellers The Group (1966) and The Anderson Tapes (1971) as well as Chekhov's The Sea Gull (1968) are admirable but not entirely successful -- but scored again throughout the 1970s. The crime drama Serpico (1973) helped cement Al Pacino's star status after The Godfather -- and earned the actor his first Best Actor Oscar nomination, and the actor and director paired again in 1975's Dog Day Afternoon, the story of a bank heist gone crazily awry; the film, now considered a modern classic, earned Lumet and Pacino Oscar nominations and some of the best reviews of their careers. In between those films, set in New York, Lumet took a literal and figurative jaunt with the successful adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (1974), an upper-class murder mystery set on a luxury European train that seemed as far from the seamy streets of Manhattan as possible.

In 1976, Lumet explored the themes of media exposure and saturation he delved into with Dog Day Afternoon even further with the scathing television satire and drama Network, starring William Holden, Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch. Lumet, along with screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, pioneered the idea (and condemnation) of what is now commonly thought of as reality TV in his story of a network anchorman (Finch) who suffers a breakdown on live television with the rallying cry "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!", and the television executive (Dunaway) who turns him into a folk hero, TV icon, and tragic figure, ultimately goading him into committing suicide live on television. The film, still potent and more lacerating than most explorations of modern media since, won Finch and Dunaway Oscars; Finch's award was posthumous, as the actor died in early 1977. It remains one of only two films to win three Academy Awards for acting (the third for supporting actress Beatrice Straight, who appeared onscreen for less than six minutes), the other being A Streetcar Named Desire.

After that string of commercial and financial hits, Lumet's career included a wide variety of films: adaptations of Broadway hits Equus (1977, fairly successful), The Wiz (1978, a musical flop but a strangely visionary view of New York), Deathtrap (1982, unexpected fun if not a perfect film); crime drama Prince of the City (1981, one of Lumet's most unheralded fims); courtroom drama The Verdict (1982, a big hit that earned star Paul Newman and Lumet Oscar nominations); Hollywood melodrama (1986's The Morning After, starring Jane Fonda); and indie drama (Running On Empty, the 1988 drama with River Phoenix in his only Oscar-nominated performance). Lumet's last film was the 2007 drama Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, which starred indie stalwarts Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Ethan Hawke, and Amy Ryan.

Lumet was married four times, first to actress Rita Gam, second to socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, and third to Gail Jones, daughter of Lena Horne. He married Mary Gimbel, who survives him, in 1980 and had two daughters with Ms. Jones, Amy Lumet and screenwriter Jenny Lumet, who scripted the drama Rachel Getting Married. Nominated for five Oscars (four for directing, one for screenplay), Lumet was awarded an honorary Academy Award at the 2004 Oscars.


- Mark Englehart

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