LITTLE KID ACTOR WHO GREW UP TO BE A BIG-TIME DIRECTOR
When I interviewed Sidney Lumet in 1974 for this New York Times article, he had
literally lost track of the number of movies he had directed. And, until his death on 4/9/11 in Manhattan, the passionate filmmaker continued to flourish in the profession he loved most, crafting such unforgettable dramas as "Dog Day Afternoon," "Network," "Prince of the City," "The Verdict" and "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." --Guy Flatley
the tough but true story of a stubborn cop who refuses to go on
the take, is exploding like gangbusters. And nobody seems more stunned
than "Serpicos" sizzling box-office performance
than Sidney Lumet, the short, mild-mannered man who directed the
movie and stands to make a gigantic killing from his percentage
of the profits.
"Im thrilled," he says, a smile of joyful shock
lighting his face. Wearing a blue denim shirt and un-chic jeans
and savoring a smooth but inexpensive Sicilian wine, Lumet looks
almost elfin amid the towering bookshelves of his Eastside townhouse
library. "Im not one to be cool about a hit, having had
so many flops. I know the marketplace, and I know you need hits
to survive in it."
Its true, Lumet has turned out a lamentable share of box-office
lemons, from the trashy trivial ("That Kind of Woman,"
with puppy-like Tab Hunter mooning over loose but lovable Sophia
Loren) to the brilliantly abrasive ("The Offence," with
psychopathic cop Sean Connery savagely murdering child-molester
the other hand, Lumet has hardly gone hitless. Beginning in 1957
with his lavishly lauded first film, "Twelve Angry Men,"
and running through "Long Days Journey Into Night,"
"The Pawnbroker," "The Group " and "The
Anderson Tapes," the 49-year-old, Brooklyn-bred director has
batted out enough winners - as well as a few prestigious losers
like "The Fugitive Kind," "A View From the Bridge,"
"The Hill," and "The Seagull" to assure
his survival in the marketplace.
Still, "Serpico," with its "Godfather"-like
grip on both the critics and the cash customers, is clearly something
new under the sun for Lumet. Yet there is something old about "Serpico,"
too that same old moral fervor, that same cry of social protest
that sounds not too far below the surface of every Lumet venture.
"Dont look now," he says, smiling, "but Serpico
is a message picture."
And since the crusading Frank Serpico played with awesome
intensity by Al Pacino gets shot in the face during a drug-bust
presumably set up by his crooked buddies in blue, one could easily
conclude that the message of this picture is a good policeman nowadays
is hard to find, and to keep in one piece.
"I wasnt interested in making an anti-cop movie,"
Lumet insists. "The thing I wanted to show was that the acceptance
of corruption as a way of life is part and parcel of the American
system. Its this whole attitude we have of What can
we do? We cant fight city hall thats at the root
of our problems. The police department is only one example, but
if its true of police, and of the courts, then we are in profound
trouble. To whom are we to turn for protection?
"It seems to me that unless Ive done something dishonest
and I havent youve got to admit the basic
thrust of the movie is true. I felt a sense of obligation to Frank
Serpico. All your life, you use phrases like Its killing
me and I thought Id die and, suddenly, youre
sitting there with a man who carries two guns with him for protection,
and those phrases become literal, and they demand something of you.
I was determined to show the truth of Frank, not to dramatize, not
to exploit, not to milk. Just to show what the man did.
"Al Pacino felt this same sense of obligation. But that was
only part of the reason for his sensational performance. The other
part is built into him as an actor. There are only a handful of
actors who are literally incapable of doing something false, and
Al is one of them. He never says, I cant do what you
ask because it would not be true to me. He simply gets into
a character and he doesnt get out. I could work with Al forever."
He could also work forever with Marlon Brando, star of his controversial
1960 film, "The Fugitive Kind." "I thought Marlon
was brilliant in that movie. His scenes with Joanne Woodward contained
some of the best acting hes ever done. But its no secret
that Anna Magnani was a problem; she had arrived at a sad place
in her life and none of us could help her. That great talent had
a great problem, and it was vanity. Suddenly, she was worried about
the way she looked. The whole staging had to be shifted, and there
were things Anna literally refused to do. But Marlon was Hurculean
very giving with her and yet he bore the brunt of
For Katharine Hepburn there was nothing to be borne but praise when
she triumphed in Lumets 1962 screen version of Eugene ONeills
"Long Days Journey Into Night." "Katie is the
best a pure, incorruptible spirit who is everything joyful
and great to work with. The day before we began shooting, I had
a chat with the entire cast and at the end I casually added, Youre
all welcome to see the daily rushes. After the others left,
Katie called me over and said, Sidney, Ive seen the
rushes on almost every movie Ive done, but Im not going
to see them on this one. Ive got to do this movie honestly
and if I see the rushes, all Ill be looking for is this,
she said, and she pulled at the flesh under her chin. And
this, she said, pulling at the flesh on her arm. Sidney,
I cant waste my energy on things like that; I need all the
energy I have to create this part. Well, I stood there and
burst into tears."
Lumets love for actors is legendary. "Good work in movies
involves personal exposure, personal risks, showing how you feel
about something. The actor is infinitely more exposed than anyone
else, and hes exposed at the very moment of creativity. Actors
are the infantry, the ones in the line of fire."
He knows how it is to be under fire. "When I was 5 years old,
I was plopped down on stage by my father, Baruch Lumet. Acting was
an economic necessity in our family during the depression, and for
two years 1931 and 1932 I was on a weekly WEVD radio
show, in Yiddish, called The Rabbi From Brownsville.
My father wrote and directed the show and acted the leading man
and the grandfather. My mother was the leading lady, and I played
the son. All together, our weekly salary came to $35."
During the thirties, Lumet distinguished himself as a member of
a truly rare Broadway breed the appealing child performer
and in 1935 he acted in Sidney Kingsleys "Dead
End." "I was 11 at the time and had already been in eight
Jewish plays. But since I was always small for my age, I couldnt
play one of the Dead End Kids. So Sidney, who adored me, wrote a
special bit into the play for me. Weve remained friends all
these years. In fact, the loft we used for the party scene in Serpico
was Sidneys loft on Sixteenth Street. He was so excited the
day we shot there."
"Dead End" was no thespian dead end for Lumet. Several
shows followed, the most memorable being William Saroyans
lovely and spirited "My Hearts in the Highlands,"
which the Group Theater produced in 1939. Brooks Atkinson, writing
in The Times, had warm words for nearly everything about the production,
including "young Sidney Lumet playing the part of a boy with
winning charm and manly technique."
That same year, Lumet took his one and only fling at being a movie
star in "One Third of a Nation," a sudsy drama in which
he played Sylvia Sidneys crippled kid brother. "I hated
acting in movies, and Ive understood all about actors ever
since. That glass has a psychic and spiritual thing about it. The
third eye. Its going to see something you dont want
seen. I knew then that I could never be a really good actor."
Yet acting is precisely what Lumet plugged away at for the next
couple of years until he was 17 and he enlisted in the wartime
army, serving a five-year hitch that included some duty in China,
Burma and India. "By the time I came back from the Army, however,
I realized that I just couldnt spend my life exposing myself
every night in front of fifteen hundred strangers."
Was he bitter about his misspent youth behind the footlights?
"What do you mean, it kept me off the streets, didnt
it? Seriously, if somebody asked me if I would let my own children
go into the arts, Id say, As a child I was exposed to
Maxwell Anderson, to Kurt Weill and to Sidney Kingsley. Believe
me, worse things can happen to a child. So what if you dont
get to see kids your own age all that means is you dont
learn to pick your nose or scratch your butt the way they do. But
to be taken by somebody you respect to see Chagall first
the paintings and then the man which is what Philip Loeb
did for me when we worked together in My Hearts in the
well, is that such a bad thing?"
Lumets childhood, like most, was full of both bad and good
things. Apparently, the same had been true of his adulthood. His
first marriage to actress Rita Gam ended in divorce,
and the day after his divorce from his second wife, Gloria Vanderbilt,
became final, he was rushed to the hospital, the apparent victim
of an overdose of pills. "It was only seven vodkas, a Miltown
and idiocy," Lumet declared a few days later.
A few years later, he is as mum about that hasty trip to St. Vincents
emergency ward as he is about all the intimate regions of his life,
past and present. It is perfectly obvious, however, that he takes
enormous pride in his pretty wife Gail, whom he married shortly
after his non-attempt at suicide in 1963. And he is equally delighted
with his two daughters - Jenny, a 9-year-old potential Picasso,
and Amy, a seven-year-old charmer who shows definite signs of following
in the footsteps of her super-talented grandmother, Lena Horne.
Lumet may very well be the model family man, but, in the end, family
is family. Hes far more vocal about his other love -
the movies. Although he made his initial reputation as a director
in the heyday of live television and he has been sidetracked from
time to time to the legitimate theater, there has rarely been a
day during the last 16 years when he has not been working on one
movie project or another. And hes a man who doesnt waste
"Thats one thing about me I guess its my
metabolism. I never walk down a hall, I bounce down a hall. And
when I make a movie, I work fast. Its funny, but when I look
at the directors whose work I like, the careers I most admire are
the careers of quantity. When I look at George Cukors work,
I see 15 or 16 pieces of first-class stuff. Thirty pieces of John
Fords work are the toppest drawer, but of course he made 170
Proof that Lumet isnt kidding about quantity is the fact that
"Lovin Molly," his new movie starring Anthony Perkins,
Beau Bridges, Blythe Danner and Susan Sarandon, is due to open next
month, and any day now he will be off to London to film Agatha Christies
"Murder on the Orient Express."
"I believe in continuity. All I want to do is get better, and
quantity can help me to solve my problems. Im thrilled by
the idea that Im not even sure how many films Ive done.
If I dont have a script I adore, I do one I like. If I dont
have one I like, I do one that has an actor I like or that presents
some technical challenge. I did That Kind of Woman because
I was enchanted by Sophia Loren. I did one movie simply because
I wanted to see what it would be like to do a dramatic story in
color. Before that, I snobbishly thought you could only tell a serious
story in black and white.
"I want to learn as much as I possibly can. I want in the worst
way to find out about high comedy. Why is it I can create laughter
in a realistic situation, but not in a high comedy? When I try,
I flounder, Im un-firm. Bye Bye Braverman was
almost marvelous, but it went off just enough to spoil it. And it
was my fault."
Its swell to experiment, but where does this supermarket approach
leave the Personal Statement the thing movie directing is
supposed to be all about in the first place? "What constantly
bothers me about these so-called personal movies is the lack of
understanding of what personalization is. There is this simplistic
notion that the more autobiographical a movie is, the more value
it has. Nonsense! Whats important is that the artist make
known his view of the way people on the screen behave.
"I know people who disguise their lives, and their disguises
are more exciting and revealing than the lives of people who throw
themselves at you naked. I mean, is there anything you dont
know about George Cukor from seeing his movies? Dont you know
what he feels about food, about art, about women? Dont you
know if he believes in God? I think Cukor is as personal as anyone
telling you all about his childhood while the camera dollies in
on a copy of Cahiers du Cinema.
"I hope someday its apparent that there is a lot of me
in Serpico, just as there is a lot of me in The
Seagull. They dont have to be similar works for me to
emerge. When I made Long Days Journey Into Night
- which I happen to think is a perfect movie - I gave
Katie that moment when Edmund says to her, Mama, Im
going to die, and she hauls off and whacks him as hard as
she can across the face. If you dont understand something
about me from that scene, then you just dont understand."