To have helmed possibly the one of the best cop thriller’s with a genre defining car chase that set the bench mark for all that followed. And then make the greatest horror film ever is quite some accomplishment for any director but that’s exactly what William Friedkin did with The French connection and The Exorcist respectively.
Born August 29th 1935 in Chicago, an only child whose mother was a nurse whilst his father flitted between jobs after fleeing from Ukraine. The family were poor but Friedkin graduated in 1953 and took a job in the mail room of a local TV station. Unfortunately he turned up for work at the wrong TV station. Nonetheless he managed to get a job as a fledgling writer for WGN and one of the senior writers nurtured him. Friedkin became a TV floor manager but in 1962, after meeting a chaplain at a gathering who told him about a prison inmate who be believed was innocent but was to be executed in six months time, It was a story that fascinated Friedkin and he persuaded his studio to let him make a documentary, The people vs Paul Crump (1962). So persuasive was the documentary that Crump was granted clemency and Friedkin, with the success under his belt moved the LA to make further documentaries
It was here that his reputation of getting results at any cost. In one instance he let the son of an intended subject shoot a cigarette his mouth whilst another occasion he stepped into the cage with a lion tamer who would later in life be mauled to death by a tiger. Friedkin soon moved into drama directing an episode of Hitchcock Hour but soon got on the wrong side of him when he dared turn up on set to direct not wearing a tie. 1967 saw him direct his debut feature with the musical comedy ‘Good Times’ starring Sonny and Cher. It flopped but he would follow it up with very different genre – a Harold Pinter adaptation of The Birthday Party, another comedy ‘The Night they raided Minsky’s’ and a gay drama The Boys in the Band. They all bombed and his directing career was on a slippery slope that was until he met producer Phil D’Antoni who had made ‘Bullitt’. The producer had optioned a book about a real life NYPD detective that has broken an international heroin smuggling operation. Friedkin was non-plussed by the script but it all changed when he met the two real life detectives. Old school cops who used old school and not always legitimate ways to get their man was utterly compelling and Friedkin took on the project. And yet every studio turned it down except 20th Century Fox
As lead character Popeye Doyle, Paul Newman had been considered for the role as had Jackie Gleason but in the end it was Jimmy Breslin who was cast but quickly went walkabout and Friedkin now up against the clock before shooting began hired Gene Hackman in what would be a fractious relationship as they shot the film. It was made worse when due to a misunderstanding, production hired Fernando Rey as the villainous drug magnate and yet the conflict between the actors style worked brilliantly. The film also had the car chase by which all others would be measured with Friedkin operating one of the cameras himself and the chase almost killed a pedestrian for which Friedlkin would later express regret about how he went about shooting the sequenced swearing never to shoot a scene in such a way again. The film would win four out of its five Oscar nominations including one for Friedkin as Best Director.
It bought him to the film that changed the face of horror. The Exorcist was an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s best selling book. Neither writer or doctor regarded it as a horror film and Friedkin’s reputation for pushing it to the extremes came to the foe again when he slapped William O’Malley to get the reaction he wanted for the scene. The resulting film would terrify audiences and yet at the same time made horror acceptable earning 10 Oscar nominations winning two for Best Screenplay and Best Sound.
And yet after this he would never again attain anywhere near the same success. His follow up ‘Sorceror’, was a brilliant but under rated remake of ’The Wages of Fear’ and flopped. His subsequent films were of varying quality some far better than others and Friedkin even turned his hand to directing operas and would earn an Emmy nomination for his TV remake of 12 Angry Men.
2011’s Killer Joe was a return to some acclaim in what was at times a lurid thriller but he was quite candid about his inability to maintain a consistent level of success saying “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 was married four times who in turn were Jeanne Moreau, Lesley Anne Down, newscaster Kelly Mage and finally Sherry Lansing in 1991 until his death from pneumonia at the age of 87 years old
His final film was The Caine Mutiny Court Martial which he had recently competed and will be seen in the 2023 Venice Film festival
related feature; William Peter Blatty, writer of The Exorcist – obituary
related feature: Those steps from the Exorcist