Joseph Sargent dies at 89; prize-winning film and TV movie director

Joseph Sargent, who won awards for his direction of socially conscious TV movies, has died. He was 89.

Joseph Sargent, a prolific director whose best-known film was "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" and whose dozens of TV movies included explorations of sensitive racial topics, died Monday at his Malibu home. He was 89.

Sargent's death was caused by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his wife Carolyn Nelson Sargent said.

Sargent made about 70 films, mostly for television. Some of his projects, like the 1997 HBO film "Miss Evers' Boys," a story about the infamous government study of black syphilis patients in Tuskegee, Ala., had strong messages that sometimes forced Sargent to tamp down his own strong opinions in the course of filming.

"I didn't want to be in a position of commenting, politically, on the subject matter, because the subject matter takes care of it," he said in an oral history with the Directors Guild of America. "It's the same challenge that an actor has — and that I try to correct."

"The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" was a 1974 thriller about a subway hijacking. It didn't tackle social issues but gave viewers some heart-pounding insights into the deteriorating, increasingly violent and ever-sardonic New York City of the day.

"As a young director, I liked to think of myself as doing only meaningful, substantive stuff," he reminisced for the New York Times in 2003. "I didn't particularly jump up and down, but it was a job and it was an exciting caper at that. So I thought I'd give it a go."

Filming required eight grueling weeks in underground tunnels and an abandoned Brooklyn subway station. Sargent couldn't persuade image-conscious transit officials to let him film the city's standard, graffiti-riddled subway cars but agreed with them on not giving prospective terrorists any hints on how to halt a train.

"What Marty Balsam does in the film, when he sets up all that paraphernalia to defeat the Dead Man's Switch, that's all Mickey Mouse," Sargent said. "That's not the way you'd do it. And I still don't know to this day how it's done."

Sargent also directed "Jaws: The Revenge," shooting it in 54 breakneck days for summer release in 1987. Steven Spielberg took nearly three times that long to shoot the original.

In rapid-fire meetings, Sargent "called me Doc and everyone else Baby," wrote shark expert John McCosker, a consultant on Sargent's film.

"Doc, would the shark in scene nine take off the guy's arm at the shoulder or the elbow?" Sargent would ask in a typical session. "Terry, do we lose our PG-13 if the shark bites above the knee?"

Sargent's Emmys were for directing "The Marcus-Nelson Murders" (1973), based on a true story about a wrongfully accused black man; "Love Is Never Silent (1985)," the Depression-era story of a young woman caring for her deaf parents; the mystery "Caroline?" (1990); and "Miss Rose White" (1992), the story of a young woman forced to confront her Jewish identity.

He won comparable awards from the Directors Guild, whose president, Paris Barclay, said in a statement that Sargent "embodied directorial excellence on the small screen."

Born to Italian immigrants in Jersey City, N.J., on July 22, 1925, Giuseppe Daniele Sorgente was the son of an ice-wagon driver and a seamstress. As a boy, he organized a neighborhood circus. He changed his name to Joseph Sargent early in his career.

Sargent entered the Army during World War II and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Several of his films delved into the war: "MacArthur" (1977), starring Gregory Peck, was a biography of the U.S. general, and "Warm Springs" (2005) was an HBO movie about Franklin D. Roosevelt's battle with polio.

Returning to New York, Sargent attended the New School for Social Research and theater classes at the Actors Studio. Though he started as an actor, he soon was directing.

"An actor does that when he finds he's too old for the parts he used to be too short for," he once joked.

Sargent directed episodes of TV series, including "Lassie," "Gunsmoke," "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." and "Star Trek," before signing on for full-length films.

With his wife, Sargent was active in the formation of the Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles. Carolyn Sargent lost much of her hearing in a childhood accident.

Sargent quit directing at 84 but taught part time at the American Film Institute and Pepperdine University.

In addition to Carolyn, Sargent's wife of 44 years, his survivors include daughters Lia Sargent and Athena Sargent Sergneri . A previous marriage ended in divorce.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Twitter: @schawkins

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