NEW YORK >> Speaking in his office above the Broadway theaters where he performed as a child, director Sidney Lumet was typically unpretentious in discussing his films, a body of work numbering more American classics than most have a right to contemplate.
“God knows I’ve got no complaints about my career,” Lumet said in 2006. “I’ve had a very good time and gotten some very good work done.”
An eminent craftsman, Lumet always referred to his more than 40 films as simple, understated “work.” Raised as an actor and molded in live television, he was a pragmatic director, eschewing ostentatious displays of style for sure-handed storytelling.
He rarely did more than two or three takes and usually cut “in the camera” — essentially editing while shooting — yet his efficient ways captured some of the greatest performances in American cinema: Al Pacino as Sonny Wortzik in “Dog Day Afternoon,” Peter Finch as Howard Beale in “Network,” Paul Newman as Frank Galvin in “The Verdict.”
His actors, with whom he always rehearsed for at least two weeks before starting production, were nominated for 17 Oscars for their performances in his films; several, including Faye Dunaway and Ingrid Bergman, won. The director was, in four nominations, always shut out until he was given a lifetime achievement award in 2005.
“I guess I’d like to thank the movies,” the director said in accepting the award.
Lumet, 86, died early Saturday in his Manhattan home after suffering from lymphoma.
He was always closely associated with New York, where he shot many of his films, working far from Hollywood. The city was frequently a character in its own right in his films, from the crowds chanting “Attica!” on the hot city streets of “Dog Day Afternoon” to the hard lives and corruptibility of New York police officers in “Serpico,” “Prince of the City” and “Q&A.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg called Lumet “one of the great chroniclers of our city.”
“It’s not an anti-L.A. thing,” Lumet said of his New York favoritism in a 1997 interview. “I just don’t like a company town.”
Fellow New York director Woody Allen called Lumet “definitely the quintessential New York filmmaker,” though Allen noted he considered one film Lumet made elsewhere — 1965’s “The Hill,” shot in Spain — his finest.
“I’m constantly amazed at how many films of his prodigious output were wonderful and how many actors and actresses had their best work under his direction,” Allen said Saturday. “Knowing Sidney, he will have more energy dead than most live people.”
Martin Scorsese said Lumet’s death “marks the end of an era.” Scorsese said Lumet “was a New York filmmaker at heart, and our vision of the city has been enhanced and deepened by classics like ‘Serpico,’ ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and, above all, the remarkable ‘Prince of the City.'”
He said it would be difficult to imagine “there won’t be any more new pictures by Sidney Lumet.”
“All the more reason,” he said, “to take good care of the ones he left behind.”
Lumet also was a deeply moral filmmaker, who often made films crackling with social justice. His first feature film, 1957’s “12 Angry Men,” used the plodding reason of Juror no. 8, played by Henry Fonda, to overturn the prejudices and assumptions of his follow jurors. His 1964 film “The Pawnbroker” was one of the early U.S. dramas about the Holocaust. His “Fail-Safe,” also from 1964, was a frightening warning on nuclear bombs.
Lumet remained very active into his 80s, saying he wasn’t geared for retirement and couldn’t imagine giving up the life of making movies.
His last film was 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” in his beloved genre, melodrama, and was penned by his daughter Jenny Lumet.
“He was a true master who loved directing and working with actors like no other,” said Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who starred in it. “He was and is valuable on so many levels the thought itself overwhelms. I adored him. God, we’re going to miss him.”
The director was born June 25, 1924, in Philadelphia to a pair of Yiddish stage performers, and he began his show business career as a child actor, appearing on radio at age 4.
He made his Broadway debut in 1934 with a small role in Sidney Kingsley’s acclaimed “Dead End,” and he twice played Jesus, in Max Reinhardt’s production of “The Eternal Road” and Maxwell Anderson’s “Journey to Jerusalem.”
After serving as a radar repairman in India and Burma during World War II, Lumet returned to New York and formed an acting company. In 1950, Yul Brynner, a friend and a director at CBS-TV, invited him to join the network as an assistant director. Soon he rose to director, working on 150 episodes of the “Danger” thriller and other series.
The advent of live TV dramas boosted Lumet’s reputation. He directed the historical re-enactment program “You Are There,” hosted by Walter Cronkite. Like Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann and other directors of television drama’s Golden Age, he transitioned to feature filmmaking.
Later, when Lumet directed the 1976 TV news satire “Network,” penned by Paddy Chayefsky, he would winkingly insist the dark tragicomedy wasn’t an exaggeration of the TV business but mere “reportage.” The film proved to be Lumet’s most memorable and created an enduring catch phrase. The crazed newscaster Howard Beale — “the first known instance of a man who was killed because of lousy ratings” — exhorts people in his audience to raise their windows and shout: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
Beale is ultimately assassinated by his network bosses (Dunaway, Robert Duvall) on live television. Lumet called such a scene — the live broadcast of a murder — “the only part of ‘Network’ that hasn’t happened yet, and that’s on its way.”
The film was nominated for 10 Academy awards and won four.
Lumet immediately established himself as an A-list director with “12 Angry Men,” which took an early and powerful look at racial prejudice as it depicted 12 jurors trying to reach a verdict in a trial involving a young Hispanic man wrongly accused of murder. It garnered him his first Academy Award nomination.
His other nominations were for directing “Network,” “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) and “The Verdict” and for his screenplay adaptation for 1981’s “Prince of the City.”
“I’m also not a competitive man, but on two occasions I got so pissed off about what beat us,” he later said. “With ‘Network,’ we were beaten out by ‘Rocky,’ for Christ’s sake.”
That year, the field also included “Taxi Driver” and “All the President’s Men.”
“The Verdict” lost to “Gandhi” in 1983, a year in which “E.T.” also finished as an also-ran.
Early on, Lumet showed a nimbleness in material and a reluctance for showy directing. In his 1995 filmmaking guide “Making Movies,” he called style “the most misused word since love.”
“Good style is unseen style,” wrote Lumet. “It is style that is felt.”
Although Lumet was best known for his hard-bitten portrayals of urban life, his resume also includes some of the finest film adaptations of noted plays: Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” Chekhov’s “The Sea Gull” and Tennessee Williams’ “Orpheus Descending,” which was made into “The Fugitive Kind,” starring Marlon Brando.
In an interview with director Peter Bogdanovich, Lumet compared filmmaking to “making a mosaic.”
“You take each little tile and polish and color it, and you just do the best you can on each little individual tile, and it’s not until you’ve literally glued them all together that you know whether or not you’ve got something good,” he said.
Some did not turn out well, such as 1992’s “A Stranger Among Us,” with Melanie Griffith, and perhaps his greatest bomb, 1978’s “The Wiz,” an adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz” featuring black actors.
The composer Quincy Jones, who scored music for five of Lumet’s films, said he was devastated to learn of his death. He said that Lumet gave him his start in movies with “The Pawnbroker.”
“Sidney was a visionary filmmaker whose movies made an indelible mark on our popular culture with their stirring commentary on our society,” Jones said. “Future generations of filmmakers will look to Sidney’s work for guidance and inspiration, but there will never be another who comes close to him.”
Lumet received the Directors Guild of America’s prestigious D.W. Griffith Award for lifetime achievement in 1993.
Pacino, who produced memorable performances for Lumet in “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Serpico,” introduced the director at the 2005 Academy Awards.
“If you prayed to inhabit a character, Sidney was the priest who listened to your prayers, helped make them come true,” the actor said.
He said he would remember the director as “the most civilized of humans and the kindest man I have ever known.”
Other popular Lumet films included “Running On Empty” and “Murder on the Orient Express.”
In 2001 he returned to his television roots, creating, writing, directing and executive-producing a cable series, “100 Centre Street.” It was filmed in his beloved New York.
In 2006, he brought out “Find Me Guilty,” starring Vin Diesel and based on a true story about a mob trial in New Jersey.
Lumet once claimed he didn’t seek out New York-based projects.
“But any script that starts in New York has got a head start,” he said in 1999. “It’s a fact the city can become anything you want it to be.”
His first three marriages ended in divorce: to actress Rita Gam, heiress Gloria Vanderbilt and Lena Horne’s daughter, Gail Jones. In 1980, he married journalist Mary Gimbel.
He is survived by his wife, daughters Jenny and Amy Lumet, stepchildren Leslie and Bailey Gimbel, nine grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. Amy Lumet also works in the film business, as a sound editor.
Associated Press writers David Caruso in New York and Bob Thomas and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.