George Hickenlooper dies: Emmy-winning director was 47

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010; 10:54 PM

George Hickenlooper, a film director best known for his Emmy Award-winning documentary about the troubled making of the Vietnam War-era film "Apocalypse Now," died Oct. 30 at a private residence in Denver. He was 47.

Determination of the cause of death is pending further tests, but foul play is not suspected, said Denver Police spokesman Sonny Jackson.

Mr. Hickenlooper appeared to have died of "natural causes," according to a statement released by his cousin, Denver mayor and Colorado gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper. According to the mayor's statement, Mr. Hickenlooper was visiting Denver for the premiere of his latest movie - "Casino Jack," starring Kevin Spacey as the lobbyist-turned-convict Jack Abramoff.

The movie, set to open later this year in theaters, traces the dealings that eventually landed Abramoff in jail for defrauding his clients and business partners. Mr. Hickenlooper stages "the story of political corruption, cynicism and criminality like a farce," Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday wrote in September 2010, "albeit one with unsettling, sober overtones."

In a career of more than 20 years, Mr. Hickenlooper directed several other feature films, including "The Man From Elysian Fields" (2002), with Andy Garcia in the role of a failed novelist who goes to work as a male escort for a dandyish boss played by Mick Jagger.

But Mr. Hickenlooper was perhaps best known as a documentarian whose 1991 film, "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse," gave viewers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of director Francis Ford Coppola as he struggled with huge cost overruns and his own self-doubt to make the war epic "Apocalypse Now."

Released in 1979, Coppola's film won wide critical acclaim and was nominated for eight Oscars, including best picture. But its years-long production was famously turbulent, beset by last-minute cast changes, actors' health problems and a typhoon that destroyed filming locations in the Philippines.

Mr. Hickenlooper and co-director Fax Bahr told Coppola's story with post-production interviews, clips from the movie and footage shot during its filming by Coppola's wife, Eleanor Coppola. "Hearts of Darkness" won a 1992 Emmy for informational programming.

"As the portrait of an artist in crisis, 'Hearts of Darkness' is unparalleled," critic Hal Hinson wrote in The Washington Post.

Mr. Hickenlooper remained fascinated by the intersecting worlds of art and celebrity. He went on to produce "Mayor of the Sunset Strip" (2003), a documentary about Los Angeles music impresario Rodney Bingenheimer, and "Factory Girl," (2006), a biopic starring Sienna Miller as Edie Sedgwick, the socialite who found fame as a member of Andy Warhol's inner circle before dying of a drug overdose at age 28.

"I related to Edie," Mr. Hickenlooper told the New York Times in 2006. "In my eyes she was a metaphor, a quintessential definition of being famous for 15 minutes."

George Loening Hickenlooper III was born May 25, 1963, in St. Louis. Both of his parents were involved in theater, and his great-uncle, Leopold Stokowski, conducted the music for the 1940 Disney classic "Fantasia."

Mr. Hickenlooper's father gave him a Super 8 camera to toy with, and he was hooked. He made some of his first movies as a boy with his childhood friend Kirk Wise, who went on to direct Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" (1991).

Mr. Hickenlooper studied film at Yale University and was an intern with low-budget film director Roger Corman. He made his directorial debut in 1988 with a short documentary about the actor Dennis Hopper, and three years later released "Reel Conversations," a book of interviews with film directors and critics.

After the success of "Hearts of Darkness," Mr. Hickenlooper translated his experience as an Ivy League graduate adjusting to adult life into "The Low Life," a 1995 semi-autobiographical film about a group of Yale graduates living in Los Angeles.

Among his other movies were "The Big Brass Ring," a 1999 adaptation of an Orson Welles screenplay, and "Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade," a 1994 short film with Billy Bob Thornton and Molly Ringwald. Thornton later adapted it into the Oscar-winning "Sling Blade."

Survivors include his wife, Suzanne Hickenlooper of Los Angeles; a son, Charles Hickenlooper of Los Angeles; and his parents, George Hickenlooper Sr. and Barbara Wenger, both of St. Louis.

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