Sidney Lumet (1925-2011)

Sidney Lumet
Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet was a top Hollywood director, becoming famous for his thought-provoking, socially aware movies such as '12 Angry Men' in 1957, and 'Long Day's Journey into Night' in 1962. He started his his long career as a child actor and became a director first of television programs and was one of the first to successfully migrate from television to movies.

He was nominated four times for the Academy Award for Best Director without winning the Oscar. He did receive an honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2005.

He became well known for setting his movies in New York and one of his favorite themes was corruption in the police department. Many actors and actresses gave their best performances under his direction and he was known for sharing and using the creative ideas of his stars. He was described by Ali MacGraw as "every actor's dream."

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He was born Sidney Arthur Lumet on June 25, 1924 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father, Baruch, was an immigrant from Poland, who became well known in Yiddish theater as a performer, director and writer. Lumet's mother was a dancer who died when Lumet was very young.

With his family background it was natural that Sidney would go into the theater, and his stage career began early, aged 4 years, appearing with his father in a Yiddish Art Theater production. Whilst attending the Professional Children's School in New York, he became a successful child actor, appearing on Broadway many times including playing the young Jesus in Maxwell Andersonís 'Journey to Jerusalem' in 1940.

During this time he made what proved to be his only feature-length movie appearance, age 15, in 1939 in 'One Third of a Nation'. After graduation he studied at Columbia University, New York, from 1941 until his army duty began in 1942. He served for three years in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945, working on radar maintenance in India and Burma.

On his discharge from the Army he returned to show business, becoming involved with the Actors Studio in New York, and directing in summer stock theater. In 1947 he was appointed senior drama teacher at the newly established High School of Performing Arts and in 1948 directed their production of 'The Young and Fair'.

Television Career 1950
Lumet began his screen career in 1950, working as an assistant to his friend Yul Brynner, who had just started a career as a television director at the CBS television studios. Whilst Brynner soon moved on, finding fame as an actor in 'The King and I', Lumet began directing in his own right such drama series as 'Danger' between 1951 and 1953, 'The Best of Broadway' between 1954 and 1955 and 'The Alcoa Hour' in 1956.

He quickly acquired a reputation for good quality programs which could be created very quickly, as the television schedules demanded. His ability to work quickly would later transfer to his movie career and would make him one of the most respected directors in Hollywood. Even after he started directing movies in 1957, he continued to work for 3 years in television with series such as 'Kraft Television Theatre' in 1958 and TV movies such as 'John Brown's Raid', 'The Iceman Cometh' and 'Rashomon', all in 1960. The quality of his television work was high and several were later adapted as full feature movies.

Movie Career 1957
In 1957, Lumet made the then unusual move from television and stage direction to directing feature films. He started in spectacular fashion with the courtroom drama classic '12 Angry Men', starring and produced by Henry Fonda. The resulting film was an outstanding critical and commercial success and was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Director, although losing out in all three to David Leanís epic, 'The Bridge on the River Kwai'.

After directing Marlon Brando in 'The Fugitive Kind' in 1960, Lumet, in 1962 directed another classic movie, an adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's family drama 'Long Day's Journey into Night' and for the remainder of the decade he continued to make quality, well regarded movies such as 'The Pawnbroker' and 'Fail-Safe' in 1964, 'The Hill' the following year, and 'The Appointment' in 1969. He was now known as one of Hollywood's top film makers but his best movies were to come during the next decade.

The Seventies
After a change of pace and direction with the well received documentary about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, 'King: A Filmed Record...Montgomery to Memphis' in 1970, Lumet made two very average movies with Sean Connery, 'The Anderson Tapes' in 1971 and 'The Offense' the following year.

'Serpico' in 1973, starring Al Pacino, was the first of four films during the decade which considerably raised Lumet's directorial kudos. The subject matter, innocence and corruption in the New York City police force was a theme to which he would return many times. The following year he made the Agatha Christie detective story, 'Murder on the Orient Express', like '12 Angry Men', a psychological thriller set in a confined space.

He returned to his favorite city and theme in 1975 with one of his most acclaimed films 'Dog Day Afternoon', the story of a failed bank heist, which again starred Al Pacino. The following year he directed his most famous film, 'Network', starring Peter Finch, William Holden and Faye Dunaway. The movie was nominated for ten Academy Awards including Best Film and Best Director, and won four including Best Actor for Peter. Finch and Best Actress for Faye Dunaway. Peter Finch's declamation became part of the language: ďIím as mad as hell and Iím not going to take this anymore!Ē

The Eighties
The quality of Lumet's films deteriorated after 'Network, although he still managed to hit a number of high points. He revisited his New York cop theme with 'Prince of the City' in 1982 and he created another remarkable courtroom movie with Paul Newman as an alcoholic lawyer in 'The Verdict' in 1983 for which Lumet received his fourth Best Director Oscar nomination. After this he made three very average films -'Garbo Talks' in 1984, 'Power' and 'The Morning After' in 1986 and then came back with another brilliant film in 1988, 'Running on Empty' in which he brings out great performances from Judd Hirsch, Christine Lahti and River Phoenix.
Later Career
After the widely praised police thriller 'Q&A' in 1990, Lumet's next major film was 'Night Falls on Manhattan', another New York crime drama, which received mixed critical reviews. He made the widely panned 'Gloria' in 1999 and then surprised everyone by returning to television in 2001 as director, writer and producer of a new courtroom drama for cable television, '100 Centre Street'. After two more well received movies, 'Find Me Guilty' in 2006 and 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' in 2007, Lumet finally retired from moviemaking.


Lumet married four times, the first three ending in divorce. His first marriage was to actress Rita Gam from 1949 to 1955. In 1963 he married heiress and socialite, Gloria Vanderbilt, the marriage ending in 1963. He then married Gail Jones, daughter of singer, Lena Horne, in 1963. The couple had two daughters and divorced in 1978. Lumet's fourth marriage was to Mary Gimbel in 1980, the marriage ending with his death.

Lumet published his memoir "Making Movies" in 1995.

Sidney Lumet died from Lymphoma on April 9, 2011, at his home in Manhattan, aged 86.

Sidney Lumet Academy Awards

No Wins:

Four Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Director ... 12 Angry Men (1957)
Best Director ... Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Best Director ... Network (1976)
Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium ... Prince of the City (1981) Shared with: Jay Presson Allen)
Best Director ... The Verdict (1982)

Honorary Award:
for Lifetime Achievement for "brilliant services to screenwriters, performers, and the art of the motion picture." (2005)

Sidney Lumet Filmography


Stage Struck
That Kind of Woman
The Fugitive Kind
Vu du pont
Long Day's Journey Into Night
The Pawnbroker
Fail Safe
The Hill
The Group
The Deadly Affair
The Sea Gull
Bye Bye Braverman
The Appointment
King: A Filmed Record... Montgomery to Memphis (Documentary)
Last of the Mobile Hot Shots
The Anderson Tapes
The Offence
Child's Play
Lovin' Molly
Murder on the Orient Express
Dog Day Afternoon
The Wiz