Exorcist Director William Friedkin Dies, Aged 87

William Friedkin

by James White |
Updated on

William Friedkin, who directed memorable movies such as The Exorcist and The French Connection, has died. He was 87.

Friedkin was born in Chicago on Aug. 29, 1935, to a family that struggled to make ends meet. After graduating from Senn High School in 1953, Friedkin replied to an advert 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 writer and columnist, Fran Coughlin, who recognized his talent.

Working his way up to floor manager and director, Friedkin then segued into documentaries with The People Vs. Paul Crump in 1962, about a death row inmate. It not only helped Crump win clemency but opened the door for a whole new career for Friedkin.

Pushing the boundaries with his work, Friedkin then moved into TV with The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and he'd go on to work on a number of series and TV movies.

Yet it was the big screen where Friedkin truly found his calling, both in non-fiction and features. His first film, the Sonny and Cher-starring Good Times in 1967, flopped, but he followed that up with a wide range of genres and subjects, including The Boys In The Band, The Night They Raided Minsky's and The Birthday Party. While none of them saw much success, he had a chance meeting with producer Phil D’Antoni, which led to The French Connection in 1971, the movie that truly announced Friedkin to the world – and won him an Oscar among its haul of five. The movie also partly helped him become one of the leading lights of the 1970s, even as some of his films failed to connect at the box office.

His next film became iconic and incredibly influential — the adaptation of William Peter Blatty's tome The Exorcist in 1973. The story of demonic possession still resonates to today, with a new sequel arriving from David Gordon Green.

Sorcerer came next, a personal favourite of the director, but another movie that struggled to find an audience (though it has since become a cult hit). 1980's Cruising proved to be controversial, but he continued on with films such as To Live And Die In LA, Deal Of The Century and Rules Of Engagement.

While he never enjoyed quite the same success as with The Exorcist, he kept working through the 1980s, '90s and 2000s, putting out movies including Bug and Killer Joe while also directing operas and scoring an Emmy nomination for his small screen remake of 12 Angry Men.

Friedkin has long admitted that he's had a tendency for self-destruction: “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." Yet his work will stand as evidence of his life and efforts.

Friedkin is survived by his wife, retired film executive Sherry Lansing, and two sons. And his most recent film, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial was accepted into this year's Venice Film Festival.

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