John Guillermin, a British director best known for workmanlike war and action movies and big-budget adventure films including “The Towering Inferno” and the 1976 remake of “King Kong,” died Sept. 27 at his home in Topanga, Calif. He was 89.
The cause was a heart attack, his wife, Mary, told the Hollywood Reporter. Reputedly a perfectionist with a flaring temper on the set, his wife described him in a statement as “sensitive and passionate, full of a fierce rapture.”
Mr. Guillermin was never a critical favorite, although “The Towering Inferno” (1974) proved one of the more effective all-star disaster pictures of the era.
The film — about a blaze that traps a group of dignitaries at the opening of the world’s tallest skyscraper — was best remembered for its special effects and its slick handling of stunts.
“The Towering Inferno” also benefited from exceptionally good actors, including Paul Newman as the architect of the 138-story building and Steve McQueen as the fire chief. Fred Astaire, William Holden, Faye Dunaway and Jennifer Jones also rounded out the top-billed cast.
The movie’s theme — “We May Never Love Like This Again” — won the Academy Award for best original song, and the picture also took home Oscars for film editing and cinematography.
Much of the film’s success at the box office was attributed to the experience of producer Irwin Allen, nicknamed the “master of disaster” for his work on “The Poseidon Adventure” and other epics featuring big-name actors under great stress.
Mr. Guillermin’s latter work — like his earlier films — were a decidedly mixed bag. There was “King Kong,” starring Jessica Lange as the damsel in distress. The film, produced by Dino De Laurentiis for $25 million, was mocked for its embarrassingly campy dialogue, as when Lange calls her hairy co-star a “goddamned chauvinist pig ape!”
Two years later, Mr. Guillermin helmed “Death on the Nile” (1978), an all-star mystery that marked Peter Ustinov’s first outing as Agatha Christie’s Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot.
Mr. Guillermin’s last film credits were “Sheena” (1984), starring Tanya Roberts as the jungle queen, and “King Kong Lives” (1986), a risible entry in the Kong canon.
John Guillermin was born in London to French parents on Nov. 11, 1925. After attending the University of Cambridge and serving in the Royal Air Force, he apprenticed on documentary films in France.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, he directed many serviceable crime dramas and action pictures and a few Tarzan films. Several of his efforts rose above the routine, including “Town on Trial” (1957), with the usually sympathetic John Mills as a bullying Scotland Yard inspector.
Mr. Guillermin made a rare foray into comedy with “Waltz of the Toreadors” (1962), starring Peter Sellers as a randy British army general and based on a Jean Anouilh play. He had also directed Sellers in a middling crime story, “Never Let Go” (1960).
Mr. Guillermin’s other credits showed a flare for grit and violence, including “Guns at Batasi” (1964), starring Richard Attenborough; “The Blue Max” (1966), with George Peppard; “The Bridge at Remagen” (1969), with George Segal; “Skyjacked” (1972) with Charlton Heston; and “Shaft in Africa” (1973), the third entry in the “blaxploitation” series with Richard Roundtree as the tough New York detective.
“You know, there’s really nothing like an exciting film on a big screen,” he once said. “Hopefully, I’ve made a few in my career.”
His first marriage, to actress Maureen Connell, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, Mary; a daughter from his first marriage; and a granddaughter. He was predeceased by a son from his first marriage.