Sidney Lumet, a versatile movie director who drew outstanding performances from many of the the screen’s greatest actors in such films as “12 Angry Men,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network,” died Saturday at his home in New York City. He was 86 and had lymphoma.
Mr. Lumet, who began his career as a child actor in Yiddish-language theater, was a productive and efficient filmmaker who directed more than 40 movies. He never made a movie in Hollywood, preferring to shoot on location in New York, which he considered more of a character than a setting in his movies.
Because he worked outside the Hollywood system, some observers think Mr. Lumet (pronounced loo-METT) was slighted by voters for the Academy Award. Nominated four times for Best Director — for “12 Angry Men” (1957), “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), “Network” (1976) and “The Verdict” (1982) — he was considered one of the finest directors never to win an Oscar.
He finally received an honorary Academy Award in 2005 for his body of work, which included such other memorable films as “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” (1962) “Fail-Safe” (1964), “The Pawnbroker” (1964), “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) and “Running on Empty” (1988).
His films were so diverse that he was sometimes criticized for not having a signature style.
“I won’t take the billing ‘a Sidney Lumet film’ or ‘Sidney Lumet’s production of,’ ” he told New York magazine in 1981. “I don’t want to settle into a particular style, because to me the style is determined by the material itself.”
Nonetheless, he helped develop a new style of urban realism in film and often focused on underdogs challenging a corrupt established order. Nowhere was that theme more obvious than in two of his films, “Serpico” (1973) and “Prince of the City” (1981), both about police officers blowing the whistle on their colleagues.
Al Pacino received an Oscar nomination for “Serpico” and another for “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), a true story about a man who attempts to rob a bank to pay for his male lover’s sex-change operation.
“If you prayed to inhabit a character,” Pacino said while introducing Mr. Lumet at the 2005 Academy Awards ceremony, “Sidney was the priest who listened to your prayers, helped make them come true.”
Mr. Lumet may have been known best for his sensitive touch with actors. In his first feature film, “12 Angry Men,” he directed Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb in a tense courtroom drama that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor later said influenced her decision to go into the law.
During his 50-year film career, Mr. Lumet directed actors such as Katharine Hepburn, Pacino, Sophia Loren, Marlon Brando, William Holden, Richard Burton, Anne Bancroft, James Mason, Simone Signoret, Vanessa Redgrave, Sean Connery, Nick Nolte, Rod Steiger and Paul Newman.
In all, his films received more than 50 Academy Award nominations, including 19 for acting. Four actors in his films won an Oscar: Ingrid Bergman for Best Supporting Actress in “Murder on the Orient Express” and Peter Finch (Best Actor), Faye Dunaway (Best Actress) and Beatrice Straight (Best Supporting Actress) in “Network.”
“I think actors feel very safe with me,” Mr. Lumet told GQ magazine in 1988. “All good work is self-revelation, and they are the most vulnerable, so I want them to feel ‘I’m in my mother’s arms,’ without coddling them. And I do another thing: I never try and get into their heads and exploit a personal vulnerability.”
Sidney Lumet was born June 25, 1924, in Philadelphia and soon moved with his family to New York. His father was an an actor, director, producer and writer for the Yiddish-language stage. His mother, who died when Mr. Lumet was a child, was a dancer.
At the age of 4, Mr. Lumet began acting in Yiddish productions and first appeared on Broadway when he was 11.
“I was thrust into it so early, it became the norm,” he told Hollywood Reporter in 2005. “I loved it. . . . It was a wonderful way to live.”
Another lifelong influence, Mr. Lumet reflected in a 2006 interview with The Washington Post, was the powerful presence of New York itself.
“I would guess if you grow up poor in this city you get a sense of drama on every block,” he said. “You had a sense that conflict exists everywhere. You’re into a world that’s physical, that’s violent.”
Mr. Lumet spent one year at Columbia University before enlisting in the Army. During World War II, he repaired radar equipment in the China-Burma-India theater before returning to New York .
He studied briefly at the Actors Studio, then started an off-Broadway theater workshop on his own, with a troupe that included Yul Brynner and Eli Wallach. In 1950, he joined CBS as an early director of television dramas.
He learned to shoot scenes quickly while directing crime dramas and the historic re-enactment show “You Are There,” with Walter Cronkite as host. During the golden age of TV drama in the 1950s, Mr. Lumet directed more than 200 live plays for “Playhouse 90,” “Kraft Television Theatre” and “Studio One.”
One of those TV dramas, “12 Angry Men,” became Mr. Lumet’s first feature film. After directing Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” for television in 1960, Mr. Lumet made a film adaptation of O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” in 1962, for which Hepburn received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
In 1964, he directed Steiger in “The Pawnbroker,” one of the first films to address the psychological horrors of the Holocaust.
His greatest period as a director began in the early 1970s, with “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network,” which received 10 Oscar nominations. With a script by Paddy Chayefsky, Mr. Lumet guided a cast that included Dunaway, Holden and Finch in a satire on TV news. Finch won the Oscar for playing newscaster Howard Beale, who throws open a window and shouts into the camera, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
Mr. Lumet’s favorites among his films included “Prince of the City, ” for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and “The Verdict,” a courtroom drama starring Newman as a down-and-out lawyer.
Mr. Lumet’s most recent movie was “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007), starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and Albert Finney in a family drama about a botched robbery. He was said to be working on new projects up to his death.
Mr. Lumet’s first three marriages, to actress Rita Gam, socialite Gloria Vanderbilt and writer Gail Jones — the daughter of singer Lena Horne — ended in divorce.
He had two daughters from his third marriage, Amy Lumet and actress and screenwriter Jenny Lumet.
Other survivors include his fourth wife, Mary Gimbel, whom he married in 1980; two stepchildren; nine grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
Summing up his career in 2005, Mr. Lumet said: “Most people won’t admit it, but all good work is accidental. . . . All you can do is prepare the groundwork, then you have to hope.”