Saturday, April 9, 2011

The late, great Sidney Lumet and other participants of the passings parade

I had originally planned this post for tomorrow but with the news that acclaimed filmmaker Sidney Lumet has called it a wrap at the age of 86, I figured I’d bump this up a day.  Lumet passed away this morning from lymphoma at his Manhattan home.

It seems fitting that Sidney would finish his life in his beloved New York, for the Big Apple provided the backdrop for so many of his films: Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Prince of the City (1981), etc.  He would direct over forty movies during his lengthy career, having made the transition to feature films after helming telecasts of TV anthology shows like Playhouse 90, Kraft Television Theatre and Studio One.  His first foray into moviemaking was 12 Angry Men (1957), a production written by Reginald Rose that had originally appeared on Studio One, and his experience in working in the small screen medium aided him immeasurably in being able to work quickly and efficiently within the Hollywood system.  Men also was the first in a series of movies that took place inside courtrooms, a favorite setting of Lumet’s and evident in such films as The Verdict (1982), Guilty as Sin (1993) and Night Falls on Manhattan (1996).

Lumet was a director that I’m ashamed to admit I often took for granted.  He certainly wouldn’t be the first name to come up if I were asked to name some of all-time favorites but the irony is that he was at the rudder of many of my much admired films: Men, The Pawnbroker (1964), Fail-Safe (1964), The Hill (1965), Serpico, Dog Day, Network (1976), Prince, etc.  But apparently I’m not alone in my appraisal of Sidney because despite being nominated for a Best Director Oscar on five different occasions Lumet had to settle for an honorary statuette in 2005.  He should have won for The Verdict (my favorite of his films), a courtroom drama starring Paul Newman as a has-been lawyer who gets an opportunity to redeem himself when he agrees to represent the family of a woman who died in an astoundingly egregious example of medical negligence and incompetence.  It’s Newman’s finest hour onscreen (Ben Kingsley’s win for Gandhi be damned) and contains one of my all-time favorite lines of cinematic dialogue when Jack Warden, Newman’s mentor, tries to warn him off the case by describing opposing attorney James Mason (simply superb) as “the Prince of F**king Darkness!”  (Yes, David Mamet wrote the screenplay.)

Lumet’s last feature film assignment, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), was a critical fave and even though it’s currently available on CharredHer’s Sundance Channel on Demand I haven’t made a appointment to see it (I turned it on one night, saw that it wasn’t letterboxed—something you can usually depend on Sundance to do—and shut it off in disgust).  But since the last Lumet film I can honestly say I watched from beginning to end was the previously mentioned Manhattan (saw it in a dollar theatre to escape the summer heat; it was okay but no great shakes) I may sit aside the rest of the evening once I’ve finished whatever projects are on my desk and enjoy the work of an underrated but nevertheless truly outstanding filmmaker.

Some other celebrity notables that we’ve said goodbye to recently:

James Pritchett (March 16, 88) – Film and television actor best known for his role as Dr. Matt Powers on the daytime soap opera The Doctors (he won a daytime Emmy in 1978); also appeared on such soaps as The Secret Storm, As the World Turns and All My Children

Carl Bunch (March 26, 71) – Rock ‘n’ roll musician who played drums at one time with Buddy Holly and the Crickets…he missed the fatal February 3, 1959 plane crash because he was in the hospital with a case of frostbite

Wally Peterson (March 30, 93) – Actor-singer known mostly for his stage work (appearing in British productions of Oklahoma and South Pacific) and for stage managing plays with the likes of Rex Harrison, Claudette Colbert, Jason Robards and Betty Garrett; was at one time married to Australian performer Joy Nichols, one of the stars of the BBC radio comedy Take It From Here

Jack Fulk (March 30, 78) – American businessman who, along with his partner Richard Thomas, founded the Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits fast food chain in 1977—which serves deep fried poultry that I’ve explained to my mother is even greasier than KFC or Church’s

Bill Varney (April 2, 77) – Academy Award-winning sound mixer (winning back-to-back trophies for The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark) who also played a pivotal role in the 1998 sound restoration of Orson Welles’ 1958 masterpiece Touch of Evil

Wayne Robson (April 4, 65) – Canadian stage, screen and television actor and voice artist whose vehicles include McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Popeye, The Grey Fox, Dead of Winter and Dolores Claiborne; had a regular gig as Mike Hamar on the cult comedy series The Red Green Show

Peter Stelzer (April 5, 66) – Film and television actor who guested on such series as Scarecrow and Mrs. King and The Fugitive (the 2001 reboot) but also won an Emmy for co-produced the TV-movie Miss Evers’ Boys

Skip O’Brien (April 6, 60) – Film and television actor best known as Detective Ray O’Riley on TV’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation; his film appearances include Prizzi’s Honor, Echo Park, Higher Learning, Liar Liar and The Hitcher

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