William Friedkin, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker who died on Monday at the age of 87, was a rebellious exemplar of the New Hollywood era, when visionaries such as Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Bob Rafelson, Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Hal Ashby, and others briefly shook the faltering studio system, replacing musicals and Bible epics with the gritty dramas of personal cinema.
Before megalomania derailed his career, Friedkin scored a controversial hit with The French Connection (1971) and produced a pop culture sensation with the harrowing shocker The Exorcist (1973), which broke box-office records and, even more astonishingly, roared into the national conversation, on radio programs, in op-ed pages, on television talk shows, and in general-interest magazines—the dominant information platforms in an age when America was still a monoculture.
But Friedkin, short-tempered, reckless, and unpredictable, almost missed his chance at celluloid fame.
In 1970, he found himself applying for unemployment benefits. In Hollywood only since 1965, he expected a career intermission that might last longer than the average downtime between projects. His first four releases had been flops, including his adaptation of The Birthday Party, a Harold Pinter comedy of menace, and The Boys in the Band, another adaptation, this one of an Off Broadway hit by Mart Crowley.
Neither film hinted at the future that awaited Friedkin in an industry where yesterday was all that mattered. Desperate for a hit, he teamed up with producer Phil D’Antoni (Bullitt) to shop The French Connection, a script based on a nonfiction account of an international drug ring waylaid by law enforcement in 1962. The French Connection ultimately found a buyer in 20th Century Fox, a struggling studio with a chairman, Richard Zanuck, months away from being fired. Zanuck offered D’Antoni a modest budget of $1.5 million—70 percent less than Friedkin had worked with for The Boys in the Band.
To Friedkin, a smaller budget was irrelevant; he had already decided on a new course when The French Connection received financing. His measured approach in previous films would give way to a high-voltage style calculated to match the explosive popular material he now preferred over stage adaptations. “I would have embarked on a course of having made obscure Miramax type films before Miramax,” the director said in a 1999 interview. “But I had this epiphany that what we were doing wasn’t making fucking films to hang in the Louvre. We were making films to entertain people and if they didn’t do that first they didn’t fulfill their primary purpose.”
When The French Connection opened in 1971, its unglamorous depiction of grimy New York City street life left viewers exhilarated. Using his documentary background (and the influence of Z, a frenetic political thriller directed by Costa-Gavras) to both pragmatic and aesthetic effect, Friedkin developed a raw, natural look that would influence dozens of films and television shows. With stolen shots, handheld cameras, minimal rehearsal and blocking, improvised dialogue, and on-location shooting throughout, he created a spontaneous atmosphere that gave viewers the impression that they were watching the mayhem from their windowsills.
In the cutting room, Friedkin had a distinct vision, inspired not only by his admiration for Alfred Hitchcock and Michelangelo Antonioni but also by his understanding of what contemporary moviegoers wanted to see. “I like quickness on the screen,” Friedkin told Peter Travers. “I like things to happen fast. It is my feeling that the audience is two steps ahead of most filmmakers. So what I try to do is play a little game with that intelligent audience I have in my head. I look at the film and see, as usual, that we’re going along A-B-C-D. But the audience, given A, is already at D. So I say, Let’s go straight to D. If we’re wrong, at least we won’t be boring anybody.” No one has ever been bored by The French Connection.
At the heart of the film raged Gene Hackman as the foul-mouthed, racist, trigger-happy Popeye Doyle, an antihero in a porkpie hat, whose rancor and wrath seemed limitless. As the 1960s staggered along, cops in films became grungier and angrier, but nothing came close to The French Connection and its psychopathic narc, first seen in a Santa Claus suit, chasing down a suspect and pummeling him in a rubble-strewn lot.
The film’s infamous chase sequence, where a car pursues an elevated train commandeered by a gun-wielding thug, was white-knuckle viewing—and, incredibly, white-knuckle filmmaking as well. Friedkin adopted guerilla tactics for one of the most famous and nerve-wracking scenes in the history of Hollywood. He shot a major part of this sequence without an official permit (meaning no safeguards) and with real traffic on the streets, imperiling more than a mile’s worth of Brooklyn citizenry. Turning stretches of Stillwell Avenue and Bensonhurst into a demolition derby, the director made the chase in Bullitt look like a Big Wheel demonstration. “We put a police light and a siren on top of the car,” he told writers Stephen Farber and Marc Green. “We went twenty-six blocks through a lot of traffic, jumping lights. I handled the camera myself. I wouldn’t let the cameraman do it because he had a family, and at that time I didn’t. Anything could have happened. It was against every law. Thank God no one got hurt. I was very fortunate. I would never do that shot today.”
Unimpressed by the work of stunt driver Bill Hickman (one-half of the memorable chase scene in Bullitt), Friedkin taunted him over drinks about his tame performances. “I said to him . . . I said, ‘Hickman, you have no guts. You’re chicken shit. You need a couple of drinks to drive good.’ I kept getting under his goat. And he said, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll show you some driving if you get in the car with me.’” Sitting in the backseat with an Arriflex camera, Friedkin, wrapped in a mattress for protection, waited for Hickman to hit the gas pedal on the 64 Pontiac and burn rubber into film history. “So I got in that car and he went for twenty-six blocks with just the siren on top of the car. We broke every stop light. We went through everything. We went in and out of lanes. There was no control at all.”
A breakout hit, The French Connection not only made Friedkin rich but also gave him carte blanche going forward. He saw his standing in Hollywood, nothing less than precarious a year earlier, rise even further when The French Connection dominated the Academy Awards in 1972, taking home Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Hackman), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Sound Editing.
The film studios, losing power to a new generation of filmmakers, had someone else with whom to reckon. In the handful of years Friedkin had been in Hollywood, he had already developed a reputation for being prickly, but it was The French Connection that solidified him as a renegade. He and Gene Hackman bickered throughout the film, with Hackman asking for walking papers at one point. Then there was the Bill Hickman incident and the subsequent impromptu car chase, not only risky but illegal.
In the wake of The French Connection, Friedkin stood out, even in an era of volatile filmmakers. He dared studio executives to fire him, shot guns on soundstages to startle his actors, ran over budget on The Exorcist and especially Sorcerer, and even slapped some of his cast members (as late as 1995, Friedkin reportedly roughed up Angie Everhart on the set of Jade). “There are times in the movie business,” Friedkin once wrote, “when it pays to be thought of as a dangerously psychotic person.”
William Friedkin was born in Chicago on August 29, 1935. For years he fudged his age, claiming that he had been born in 1939, a lie that led to his enjoying a brief, erroneous distinction as the youngest filmmaker to win an Academy Award for Best Director. The fib reflected how competitive Friedkin could be, and it underscored how much he enjoyed a good con. He ran the streets of the North Side as a teenager, where he avoided juvenile delinquency only because of the shame he felt when his mother discovered his lawless nature. “I didn’t know right from wrong when I was a teenager,” he told Alex Simon in an interview. “I had no particular education to speak of. I loved my mother and father and it was finally the fact that I was getting so much on their nerves that I just quit cold turkey and tried to be a human. This happened after I saw my mother crying when I’d been picked up for robbery at Goldblatt’s department store as a teenager.”
His mother was a nurse who quit her job to become a homemaker, and his father was a jack-of-all-trades who eventually lost his knack for picking up jobs, leaving the family on public assistance. After graduating from Senn High School, Friedkin took a job in the mailroom of WGN-TV, where he quickly advanced into production. Like several of his eventual New Hollywood peers—among them Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, Arthur Penn, Robert Mulligan, and Martin Ritt—Friedkin began his career in television, directing hundreds of live programs before switching to documentaries. A viewing of Citizen Kane gave him an unexpected sense of destiny. He was so mesmerized by what Orson Welles had wrought on the silver screen that he sat in the theater for several consecutive showings, finally exiting at midnight, stunned at possibilities he had never considered. With Welles as an example, Friedkin was now less interested in rote television: cinema became his lodestar.
In 1962, Friedkin created a stir when his first documentary, The People vs. Paul Crump, led to an inmate having his death sentence commuted. Documentaries were often staged before the cinema verité era, but Friedkin used reenactments to dramatize historical events—an unusual approach in the early 1960s. The People vs. Paul Crump won the Golden Gate Award for Film as Communication at the San Francisco International Film Festival, paving the way for the director to work under David L. Wolper in Los Angeles. In the early 1960s, Wolper was a leading producer of documentaries for television and had built a reputation for quality programming. Not yet 30, Friedkin drove his Ford Fairlane to Alta Loma Road in West Hollywood, where he took a room at the Sunset Marquis, just south of Sunset Boulevard.
Now based in Los Angeles, he worked on several documentaries for Wolpert, who characterized him in terse grammar for the writer Nat Segaloff. “He was a wild young man,” Wolpert recalled. “Cocky and wild. Wild and super-hyper.” One complete sentence, two fragments, and three “wilds”—a sketch portrait of the unruly young artist.
Within two years, Friedkin got his first break: directing the final episode (“Off Season”) of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. On the Burbank set, he met Hitchcock, one of his heroes, who admonished him for not wearing a tie during the shoot. To Friedkin, it was an absurd yet oddly formal slight; he would never forget it.
A year later, in one of those random Hollywood serendipities, he wound up at the helm of a Sonny & Cher spoof. Good Times, filmed in 1966 (at the height of the inexplicable Sonny & Cher craze) but released in 1967, was a rip-off of Help! and other Beatles romps, but without the visual pizazz that Richard Lester had brought to those productions or the surreal inspiration with which Bob Rafelson would suffuse Head, featuring the synthetic Monkees.
Good Times crashed at the box office, blindsided by the emerging counterculture. By 1967, Sonny & Cher had already been rendered obsolete by the amped-up acid jams of Jefferson Airplane and Vanilla Fudge, along with the more sophisticated pop-rock sensibilities of The Beatles and the electric/eclectic folk rock epics of Bob Dylan. As a result of this abrupt cultural shift, Good Times barely registered, and William Friedkin had his first Hollywood bomb.
He would follow Good Times with three more money-losers, casting doubt on his future in Hollywood. But with the overwhelming commercial and critical success of The French Connection, he secured leverage. And in Hollywood, leverage was everything. From the mailroom to the studios of WGN-TV to the offices of David Wolper in Los Angeles to a box-office smash and an armful of Academy Awards—Friedkin had raced headlong into a future that had not even been a glimmer until his late twenties, when Charles Foster Kane showed him the way.
His drive, ambition, and combativeness, along with the wildness that David Wolpert succinctly described, had vaulted Friedkin to the top of a tumultuous profession. Now the director was in the position to choose his next project with no strings attached. He chose The Exorcist.
On December 26, 1973, The Exorcist opened in 24 theaters across the U.S. and immediately struck a dark national chord. Based on an overheated bestselling novel written by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist is one of the rare film adaptations that improves on its source material. One of the most intense Hollywood films ever produced, The Exorcist revolutionized the horror genre and, 50 years later, remains a consensus pick as the scariest movie of all time. More than any other horror film, with the possible exception of Psycho, The Exorcist remains a cultural touchstone, its longevity due partly to the myths surrounding it and partly to its undeniable cinematic qualities: a relentless pace, an unrelieved atmosphere of dread, a first-rate cast, state-of-the-art special effects, and the shock value of taboo. Soon, it would become a national phenomenon. “I think the fact that I made the film in a realistic way is what ultimately gets to people,” Friedkin told Cinephilia & Beyond. “It’s not done as though it takes place on a planet far, far away or something like that, or in an intangible world. It’s set in the real world, with characters who are portrayed as humanly possible. So, I think that the fact the story is portrayed realistically is what disturbs people about the events in it.”
The story—two priests battling a demon who has possessed a 12-year-old girl—terrified millions of Americans. Within days of The Exorcist opening, stories began to emerge of audience reactions that had not been seen in more than a decade, ever since Psycho, with its infamous shower scene, had left filmgoers shrieking in their seats. But The Exorcist went far beyond what even the menacing combination of Alfred Hitchcock and Norman Bates could produce. No one had ever seen such a response to a film. Between rowdy overflow crowds, protests from parents and religious groups, and hundreds of spectators taken away from theaters in various stages of hyperventilation or insensibility, The Exorcist provoked startling reactions that resembled collective hysteria. (Some of these incidents were probably staged for publicity.) Not that such alarming sights disappointed Friedkin. “What I’m interested in is an entire audience in the palm of my hand,” he once said. “Boom. That’s why they come there . . . Now, when people get carried out on stretchers in my movie, The Exorcist, I say they get what they pay for. Really. You know, give the public what they deserve. They went in to be shocked and scared.”
From the viewpoint of the filmmakers, of course, the most important metric was box-office receipts. And The Exorcist was not just a hit; it was a runaway smash, with crowd control an essential part of the filmgoing experience. Despite its limited screenings, The Exorcist immediately began breaking box-office records in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The initial reports of fainting, vomiting, and walkouts only made the film a hotter ticket.
During its initial run, The Exorcist would gross almost $200 million, making it at the time the most profitable film in Warner Bros. history. For nearly 20 years, The Exorcist held the top spot as the highest-grossing R film in history until Pretty Woman, a slick romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts as a hooker with the cliché-stamped heart of gold, became a surprise sensation for Walt Disney Studios (!) in 1990.
The Exorcist rocketed Friedkin to elite status, but his success was spectacularly brief. Like most of his New Hollywood colleagues, he self-destructed with egotistical gusto just when he should have reached his peak. In fact, he might have drawn up the blueprint for the crash-and-burn rebels who followed in his catastrophic wake.
Before Francis Ford Coppola mortgaged everything he owned to make Apocalypse Now (burning himself out for the next decade) and Michael Cimino singlehandedly bankrupted United Artists with Heaven’s Gate, there was Sorcerer, a $20 million boondoggle whose failure sent Friedkin into a spiral. “It was extremely difficult to shoot and the fact that the film was not a success is one of the most disappointing things that’s ever happened to me,” he told Robert J. Emery in 2002. “I thought, after it was finished, that I had finally made a film that really worked for me and I was very pleased with it, but it was really a failure. I have to say it was both a critical and a commercial failure and it hurt me very deeply. There was a deep wound from which I may have only recovered recently.”
A dismal box-office washout when it was released, Sorcerer has since been reclaimed as a lost classic. Its bravura set piece—two trucks loaded with nitroglycerin attempting to cross a primitive suspension bridge during a rainstorm—is breathtakingly executed and functions as a correlative of the filmmaker taking chances with his art.
Sorcerer and its grim reckoning left Friedkin comparing himself with tragic Greek myths. “My sudden success in Hollywood after years of failure had convinced me that I was the center of the universe,” the director wrote in his memoir. “Many were waiting for me to crash, and I obliged them in spades. I had flown too close to the sun and my wings melted.”
With Cruising (1980), Friedkin enraged the largest gay community in North America with his raw, if sometimes risible, portrayal of the now long-extinct BDSM leather scene in New York City, forcing him to loop dialogue on location shoots disrupted by furious protesters. The sordid bars were real (they dotted the once-notorious Meatpacking District, now home to a combination of swank retail and cultural hotspots, including the Whitney Museum), and so were the denizens in each scene. As a snapshot of a pre-AIDS gay subculture, Cruising has a shocking sociological power, and its seediness gives the film enough rude atmosphere to fascinate. As a crime thriller, however, Cruising is hopelessly disjointed and murky, its graphic violence and enigmatic conclusion alienating viewers from every demographic. Not even the star power of Al Pacino, as a cop who goes undercover to find a serial killer who targets gay men, could help Cruising at the box office or with the critical establishment.
For the next 20 years, mixed reviews (and worse) assailed Friedkin, with only To Live and Die in L.A. inspiring better. A glossy, raucous MTV take on The French Connection (this time featuring morally ambiguous Treasury agents), To Live and Die in L.A. doubled as a case study on the differences between 1970s film principles and those of the gaudy 1980s, when everything was bigger, faster, louder.
And yet, between the seemingly endless stock scenes found in nearly every vigilante-cop film, To Live and Die in L.A. bursts with vivid sequences and ideas that often short-circuit in execution but nonetheless linger long after the closing credits. And the enigmatic Eric Masters (played by an eerily magnetic Willem Dafoe), a painter who moonlights as a counterfeiter (or is it the other way around?), is an unforgettable villain. Masters sets fire to his canvases after completing them—a nod to the Auto-Destructive Art movement of Gustav Metzger, perhaps, or the Cremation Project of L.A.-based painter John Baldessari—and his nihilistic worldview gives Masters a gravitas most celluloid criminals lack. A procedural montage of Defoe in action as a counterfeiter is spellbinding and suggests the wordless, bravura sequences of criminal operations staged by Robert Bresson (A Man Escaped), Jean-Pierre Melville (The Red Circle), and Jules Dassin (Rififi).
Its middling critical response notwithstanding, To Live and Die in L.A. was one of Friedkin’s few post-Exorcist films that did not lose money. By the mid-1990s, as the 25th anniversary of The Exorcist approached, the director was at his nadir. After a string of disasters, the former New Hollywood holy terror had been relegated to music videos (Laura Branigan, Wang Chung, Barbara Streisand) and the pre-Sopranos wasteland of television.
His big-budget comeback began after his wife, Sherry Lansing, became head of Paramount Pictures. For Paramount, Friedkin directed Blue Chips in 1994, a basketball film that struggled at the box office, and, a year later, Jade, an erotic thriller scripted by Joe Eszterhas, then the hottest, if tawdriest, screenwriter in Hollywood. Even by the lewd and lowdown standards of its genre, Jade was a dud, earning less than one-fifth of its $50 million budget during its theatrical run. Despite two hot names toplining (the sultry Linda Fiorentino and David Caruso, fresh off NYPD Blue), and the promise of serious kink, Jade could not overcome its ham-fisted direction. Finding a kind review of Jade in 1995 was like finding a Picasso in the Museum of Bad Art.
Jade seemed like the end of the road for Friedkin, only 60 years old but steadily declining since the early 1980s. But he made a minor comeback in the late 1990s predicated on his glory days from the Nixon era, keeping his name afloat even as his filmmaking declined. He was a featured scoundrel in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a 1998 book by Peter Biskind that chronicled the New Hollywood’s excesses. In the United Kingdom, the mythologizing documentary Fear of God and the re-release of The Exorcist spurred Friedkin into revisiting Pazuzu and company.
In 2000, The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen (with footage cut from the original film restored) became a hit and a hot topic redux for the media. In A Decade Under the Influence, a 2003 documentary about the New Hollywood, Friedkin stood out for his crankiness and bluntness, even among a broad collection of rowdy talking heads.
A pair of bleak low-budget productions scripted by playwright Tracy Letts, Bug (2006) and Killer Joe (2011), gave Friedkin something close to general acclaim for the first time since the Reagan era. Yet neither film could generate the box office of his long-forgotten Chevy Chase lemon Deal of the Century (1983).
Friedkin oversaw the restoration and rerelease of Sorcerer in 2014, sparking a critical reevaluation of the film that had all but ended his career as a top director. Two more documentaries about the director and The Exorcist (Friedkin Uncut and Leap of Faith) kept him in the public eye, and his curious 2017 documentary on a prolific exorcist named Father Amorth returned him to the supernatural milieu of his greatest success.
William Friedkin may have been living off his past, but what a past.
Top Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images for TCM