William Friedkin, Acclaimed Director of ‘The French Connection’ and ‘The Exorcist,’ Dies at 87

William Friedkin, Acclaimed Director of ‘The French Connection’ and ‘The Exorcist,’ Dies at 87

William Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director behind The French Connection and The Exorcist who was one of the most admired directors to emerge from a wave of brilliant filmmakers who made their mark in the 1970s, died Monday. He was 87.

Friedkin died in Los Angeles, his wife, former producer and studio head Sherry Lansing said.

His pictures, which also included 1977’s Sorcerer, 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A. and 2006’s Bug, were marked by an exceptional visual eye, a willingness to take what might have been a genre subject and treat it with high seriousness and a sense of how sound could add a subterranean layer of dread, mystery and dissonance to his stories — a haunted and haunting quality that lifted his visceral works into another realm, conveying a preternatural sense of “fear and paranoia, both old friends of mine,” as he said in his 2013 memoir, The Friedkin Connection.

He was part of a brilliant generation of filmmakers who upended the studio system, making movies that were provocative, individualistic and antiauthoritarian. Several of its members at one time joined forces to create The Directors Company in an attempt to give themselves the independence they cherished, though internal disagreements led to its dissolution, not long after they had collectively turned down Star Wars.

One might debate who among these helmers was the most talented, but not even the bravest of them could rival the Chicago native’s willingness to tilt at the establishment. When Alfred Hitchcock told him off for not wearing a tie on the set (he had hired the young filmmaker in 1965 for an episode of NBC’sThe Alfred Hitchcock Hour), Friedkin got his revenge: The night he won the Directors Guild Award for The French Connection (1971), passing Hitchcock on his way from the podium, he yanked his snap-on bow-tie and quipped: ‘How do you like the tie, Hitch?’ “

It would have surprised Hitchcock that Friedkin revered the master’s work, as he did that of Orson Welles, whose Citizen Kane he saw for the first time when he was 25. A true cineaste, he in turn was revered by a younger generation; indeed, shortly before Damien Chazelle became the youngest director to win an Oscar (for La La Land), he made a pilgrimage to Friedkin’s home high up in Bel-Air just to meet the filmmaker.

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Even in a work that might have been a B movie with another helmer, Friedkin could dazzle with his skill and originality. The Exorcist (1973), one of his most admired films, begins in a Middle Eastern desert, where an old man stumbles through an archeological site toward a hole where something — who knows what? — has arrested others’ attention. The sequence is terrifying, not just because of its desaturated images and the naturalistic performances that capture the heat, sweat and humidity of the locale, but also because of a soundtrack in which a buzzing, insistent sound reminiscent of flies — perhaps the lord of the flies himself — grows ever louder and more menacing.

It is either ironic that neither Friedkin nor William Peter Blatty, author of the novel on which the movie was based, regarded this as a horror story but rather as a drama, to be as fully and richly explored as any other. Friedkin remained fascinated with the subject his entire life and returned to it for his final film, a documentary about the oldest-living exorcist, The Devil and Father Amorth (2017), in which he personally manned the camera during an exorcism.

The French Connection (which won Friedkin his Oscar) could equally have been a routine potboiler; instead, it turns the bitter cold of a New York winter into a presence as tangible as the evil spirit in The Exorcist, inescapable for the film’s antiheroes, two New York City detectives played by Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, as they pass through an urban empire littered with debris and human detritus, one almost indistinguishable from the other. Evil lurks in these mean streets just as much as in the elegant home inhabited by the 12-year-old Regan (Linda Blair) in The Exorcist.

Good and bad intrigued Friedkin, but in many of his films a blurred line existed between them and what separated his heroes from his villains was often their intentions rather than their specific actions. The character Hackman plays in French Connection horrified the actor, even though he was based on a real-life detective, and Friedkin had to push him ferociously to get him to portray the man in all his rough-and-tumble, bullying and bigoted ways.

A deep pessimism suffused his work — even The Exorcist and French Connection, his most commercial films, end not in triumph but in partial failure, with the death of a young priest in one and the escape of the narcotics mastermind in the other — even though he was witty, funny and fully engaged in life right to the end. His films’ ethical complexity showed them to be cut from the same cloth as Chinatown (Roman Polanski), The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola) and The Last Detail (Hal Ashby), some of the other masterworks of the 1970s, all of which grew out of the cynicism bred by the Vietnam War and later deepened by Watergate.

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William Friedkin and Ellen Burstyn at work on ‘The Exorcist.’

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William Friedkin was born in Chicago on Aug. 29, 1935, the only child of a former nurse whom he called a “saint” and a father who hopped between jobs, a man who “seemed to have no sense of purpose except day-to-day survival.” Both came from Jewish families that had fled Ukraine following the pogroms of the early 20th century.

The family was poor and at one time subsisted on welfare but, Friedkin wrote, “I never knew it. All my friends lived the same way.” Growing up among them, he had no knowledge of books, film, music or even morality. “The guys I hung with, like me, had no moral compass,” he wrote in The Friedkin Connection. “I literally didn’t know the difference between right and wrong.”

After graduating from Senn High School in 1953, Friedkin replied to an ad posted by a local TV station looking for someone to work in the mailroom. He showed up at the wrong station, but it was the best thing that could have happened: He was hired by WGN, where he fell under the wing of a kindly writer and columnist, Fran Coughlin, who recognized his talent and opened his eyes to a larger universe of art and artists, teachers and politicians.

Promoted to floor manager, Friedkin soon became a director of live television, earning the then-unimaginable sum of $200 per week.

His next break came when he met a prison chaplain at a local soiree. The man told him about Paul Crump, a death row inmate he believed to be innocent but who was scheduled for execution in six months. The documentary Friedkin subsequently made about him, The People vs. Paul Crump (1962) — replete with a re-creation of the alleged crime and a montage featuring the electric chair in a fever dream — not only led Crump to receive clemency but also to a new career for Friedkin, who moved to Los Angeles and started making documentaries for David Wolper.

Working for the famed producer, Friedkin learned to abandon pretense in favor of clarity. He was fearless, even reckless, in his attempts to create excellent work. Seeking to win over the subject of one documentary, he agreed to let the man’s son shoot a cigarette out of his mouth from 50 paces; wishing to make a behind-the-scenes circus story come to life, he stepped into a cage with a lion tamer (who later would be mauled to death by one of the cats).

Leaving Wolper, Friedkin made his Hitchcock Hour episode “Off Season,” about a big city cop (John Gavin) who innocently kills the wrong man, and from there landed his first feature, Good Times (1967), starring Sonny and Cher. He deemed the former one of the few geniuses he had ever met, even though the musical comedy flopped.

Three other features followed, each in a different style and genre: the Harold Pinter adaptation The Birthday Party (1968), the burlesque comedy The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) and The Boys in the Band (1970), one of the first mainstream movies to center on a gay cast. Each bombed, and the once-promising helmer appeared to be floundering — until he met Phil D’Antoni in the storied Paramount steam room.

D’Antoni, the producer of the Steve McQueen thriller Bullitt (1968), had just optioned a book about two real-life New York City police detectives who had busted an international heroin ring. Friedkin read it and was unimpressed, but when he met the cops, he was transfixed. Their salty personalities, their willingness to use dubious methods in the pursuit of justice, their wisecracking and obsessive commitment to their work fascinated him. Friedkin signed on.

Two years later, after being turned down by every studio except one, he made The French Connection at 20th Century Fox on a budget of $1.5 million.

After considering actors like Paul Newman (too expensive) and Jackie Gleason (too loathed at Fox) to play one of the cops, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, Friedkin cast Jimmy Breslin and spent several days working with him, only for the New York newspaperman to vanish. With a clock ticking, he reluctantly agreed to hire Hackman, with whom he fought constantly.

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The film’s problems were compounded when the wrong actor showed up to portray the main villain, Alain Charnier. Friedkin had instructed someone on his team to get “that guy who played the gangster in Buñuel’s Belle de Jour“; in a misunderstanding, Spanish actor Fernando Rey (a Luis Buñuel regular) was booked instead.

Rey was suave, sophisticated and anything but the gangster as Friedkin had envisioned him. “I stared at (the team member) in disbelief,” he recalled. “I wanted to strangle him. I was convinced the film would be a disaster. Hackman was all wrong for Popeye, and now, God help us, (the movie had hired) Fernando fucking Rey, who looked like a character out of an El Greco painting.”

The casting, in fact, proved miraculous (it established a class-conflict between hero and villain to underline the drama), and so did the film, highlighted by arguably the most memorable chase sequence in movie history, when Doyle — in a heated pursuit of killer Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi) — commandeers a Pontiac LeMans and races through the narrow streets of Brooklyn to catch the bad guy riding in an overhead subway car.

Friedkin himself operated a camera for the scene, almost killing a passerby as his car barreled from one block to another. Looking back, he said he was horrified at what he was willing to do for his art. “I have not, and would not again, risk the lives of others as we did,” he noted, “but the best moments of the chase came from this one long run with three cameras; pedestrians and cars dashed out of the way, warned only by the oncoming siren. … I put people’s live at risk. I say this more out of shame than pride; no film is worth it. Why did I do it? … I shared (the cops’) obsession.”

He brought that same obsession to his next film, The Exorcist, an adaptation of Blatty’s best-selling novel. Friedkin only got the job after other filmmakers, including Mike Nichols and Stanley Kubrick, had rejected it. Warner Bros., meanwhile, was skeptical of a man who had a reputation for being difficult.

“There are times in the movie business when it pays to be thought of as a dangerously psychotic person,” Friedkin explained. “Blatty tried to cultivate that reputation, and on occasion, so did I.” The men shared the view that this “was a unique and original story. I didn’t see it as a horror film; quite the opposite, I read it as transcendent, as Blatty had intended.”

At first, Friedkin sought Audrey Hepburn to play the mother of Regan, a prepubescent girl who becomes possessed by the devil; Hepburn agreed — but only if the picture were shot in Rome, where she lived with her husband. Anne Bancroft also wanted to do it but said she’d have to wait a year until she was available. Jane Fonda turned the role down flat. “Why would anyone want to make this piece of capitalist rip-off bullshit?” she allegedly asked.

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In the end, Friedkin cast Ellen Burstyn and then Blair, a wide-eyed newcomer, as her daughter. With Lee J. Cobb, Max von Sydow and Jason Miller rounding out the cast, principal photography commenced in New York, where disaster followed disaster. The production went over schedule, a set was destroyed by fire, and at one point, when a nonprofessional actor (William O’Malley) struggled to find the right emotion as he performed last rites, Friedkin had to resort to extreme tactics, as he recounted in his memoir.

Grasping the man by his shoulders, he asked:

“Do you love me?”

“Yes,” said O’Malley, trembling.

“Say it!” yelled Friedkin.

“Yes, I love you Billy, you know it,” the man replied.

Then “I slapped him across the face as hard as I could and pushed him to his knees, next to the prone body of Jason Miller. I (called) ‘Action!’ O’Malley burst into tears and performed the scene.”

The crew may have been shaken, but Warners was thrilled; The Exorcist opened on Dec. 26, 1973, and went on to become one of the biggest box office successes of all time. (In 2000, the studio issued a re-edited version with 15 minutes added back in; when Friedkin returned to the subject with a sympathetic portrait of the oldest-living exorcist, Gabriele Amorth, in The Devil and Father Amorth, he never doubted the authenticity of what he saw.)

The Exorcist should have marked the beginning of decades of success for the filmmaker, but his career had peaked. His next feature (his personal favorite), Sorcerer (1977) — a gritty adaptation of the Henri-Georges Clouzot thriller The Wages of Fear about renegades attempting to drive two truckloads of nitroglycerin through the South American jungle  — flopped. As Friedkin noted, “It would be years before I would again experience (the same) self-confidence on a film set, a belief in a kind of divine intervention.”

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He continued to work regularly but never with the same financial results. His later pictures included Cruising (1980), which caused huge controversy because of its negative depiction of a gay S&M world — leading to attacks by members of the LGBTQ community that once had lauded Boys in the Band — as well as Deal of the Century (1983), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), Blue Chips (1994) and Rules of Engagement (2000).

Friedkin also turned to other avenues of creativity, most notably as an internationally admired director of operas, and in television, earning an Emmy nomination in 1998 for his remake of 12 Angry Men, starring Jack Lemmon, for Showtime.

In his late 70s, he experienced the thrill of having a cult classic with Killer Joe (2011), based on a play by Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright he had discovered off-Broadway. (In 2006, Friedkin had directed Bug from a Letts screenplay.)

Killer Joe was classic Friedkin, as The Guardian noted, a “marriage of extreme, lurid material with tightly controlled aesthetic rigor.” It was also a marvelous resurrection for a man who had long since moved from the epicenter of Hollywood power, a sweet return to critical acclaim for a filmmaker who knew the highs and lows of fame and fortune.

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From left: William Friedkin with actors Gene Hackman and Fernando Rey on ‘The French Connection.’

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Friedkin was wry about his mishaps and mistakes. Remembering how he had tossed a Basquiat drawing in the trash and turned down the chance to direct a video for Prince, he noted: “I’ve burned bridges and relationships to the point that I consider myself lucky to still be around. I never played by the rules, often to my own detriment. I’ve been rude, exercised bad judgment, squandered most of the gifts God gave me, and treated the love and friendship of others as I did Basquiat’s art and Prince’s music. When you are immune to the feelings of others, can you be a good father, a good husband, a good friend? Do I have regrets? You bet.”

He blamed his own hubris for his fall from grace but had no bitterness about it and, in person, twinkled with joy — especially in his later years, following his July 1991 marriage to Lansing, who survives him, as do his sons, Jack Friedkin and film editor Cedric Nairn-Smith.

He was earlier married to actresses Jeanne Moreau and Lesley-Anne Down and to newscaster Kelly Lange.

His most recent work was a new version of The Caine Mutiny, which had been accepted into the Venice Film Festival.

Throughout his career, he never lost his passion for the work. “I haven’t made my Citizen Kane,” he acknowledged in his autobiography, “but there’s more work to do. I don’t know how much, but I’m loving it.”