Richard C. Sarafian, a Hollywood director best known for the speed-addled saga of squealing brakes and existential angst chronicled in the 1971 cult film “Vanishing Point,” died Sept. 18 in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 83.
Mr. Sarafian was recovering from a broken back when he contracted pneumonia, family members said.
He directed numerous films and, earlier in his career, TV shows, including episodes of “Gunsmoke,” “The Twilight Zone” and “Batman.” He also acted, appearing as a hit man named Vinnie in the Warren Beatty satire “Bulworth” and as gangster Jack Dragna in Beatty’s “Bugsy.”
In “Dr. Doolittle 2,” Mr. Sarafian did a comic turn as the voice of the God Beaver, who ran the forest like a mafia don with buck teeth.
But it was “Vanishing Point,” the story of a tough guy named Kowalski and his frenzied road trip from Denver to San Francisco, that proved to be Mr. Sarafian’s most enduring work.
“I had absolutely no idea that this thing would survive all these years,” he told the Web site movieweb.com in 2009. “We worked hard in the hot sun and we partied at night. You just hope, like everything, that you blow the audience a few kisses and try to fulfill your vision of what it’s about . . . freedom, an endless road and let the cards fall where they may.”
In Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” the director gave Mr. Sarafian a “special thanks” credit, a bow to the influence of “Vanishing Point.”
In 1997, the Scottish rock band Primal Scream paid tribute to Mr. Sarafian by naming an album “Vanishing Point.”
“It’s always been a favorite of the band,” leader Bobby Gillespie explained. “We love the air of paranoia and speed-freak righteousness.”
In the film, ex-cop, ex-racer and Vietnam vet Kowalski, played by Barry Newman, bets his drug dealer he can deliver a supercharged 1970 Dodge Challenger to California in 15 hours. The reasons for the wager are unclear, but it triggers 90 minutes worth of screaming police cruisers and an excited, crash-by-crash radio narration by Super Soul, a blind disc jockey played by Cleavon Little. Kowalski also encounters desert hippies, a rattlesnake wrangler and an alluring, naked blond woman on a motorcycle.
Critics panned the movie, but Mr. Sarafian was undeterred.
“The beauty of ‘Vanishing Point’ was that I met the challenge to physicalize speed,” he told Turner Classic Movies.
The son of Armenian immigrants, Richard Caspar Sarafian was born April 28, 1930, in New York City. He attended New York University but “was a rotten student,” he told the Armenian Reporter in 2008, until he took a course in film writing and directing: “I got an A!”
Serving during the Korean War as a reporter for an Army news service, he was stationed for a time in Kansas City, Mo., where he met future Hollywood director Robert Altman.
The two became pals and worked together making industrial films. When Altman directed a local play, Mr. Sarafian acted in it. The director’s sister came bounding backstage after he appeared, her arms opened wide.
“Richard, Richard!” she exclaimed. “You were adequate!”
They married (and divorced and remarried) and had five children. Helen Joan Altman died two years ago.
Mr. Sarafian got his start in TV as Altman’s assistant but quickly established himself as a director. The 1963 ““Living Doll” episode for “The Twilight Zone” was one of his more famous efforts.
He also directed “Man in the Wilderness,” “The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing,” “Run Wild, Run Free” and other movies. His first feature film, “Andy,” was the story of a developmentally disabled man scraping by in New York.
Survivors include five children.