In early 1955, Sarris later wrote, he was taking a night class in film appreciation at Columbia, "between meandering through graduate English and malingering in Teachers College," when the film teacher sent him to meet with Jonas and Adolfas Mekas.
Sarris had been a reader for 20th Century Fox and was working for the U.S. Census Bureau in 1960 when Jonas Mekas asked him to fill in for him reviewing movies for the Village Voice.
Sarris' first Village Voice review — of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" — got him off to a controversial start at the publication.
"I wrote a review that treated Hitchcock as a serious artist, and it got a tremendous amount of hate mail," Sarris recalled in a 2003 interview with the Westchester County, N.Y., Journal News.
"At that time," Sarris said, "everybody liked Hitchcock, but his reputation was as a minor entertainer. People objected to the fact that I treated him as a major artist. It outraged people." But the controversy launched Sarris' career with a bang.
No one at the time, he said, "would have thought of writing a serious critical study of Alfred Hitchcock, except in France. In fact, I'd written an anti-Hitchcock article a couple of years earlier, as my enemies pointed out at the time. But the French turned me around. The French had a huge influence on me."
As he wrote in his seminal book, "The American Cinema," the auteur theory he began to promote set off "a spark … in far-off San Francisco by a lady critic with a lively sense of outrage."
That lady was Kael, who began her career in Berkeley and became a dominant voice in film writing through her reviews in the New Yorker. She attacked Sarris and auteurism in a famous essay, "Circles and Squares," in which she said the auteur theorists never say "by what divining rods they have discovered the elan of a [Vincente] Minnelli or a Nicholas Ray or a Leo McCarey."
Sarris later wrote that he and Kael became "a virtual figure of speech, like Cain and Abel" as a result of their feuding.
"He and Pauline Kael locked horns, but they locked horns because people were so interested in the films that were being made at that time," film historian David Thomson said Thursday. "So it was a very lively, rich time. It was a moment in which the movies took on a sort of cultural-intellectual importance in America that they didn't have before and they don't have now."
Sarris' association with the Village Voice, for which he wrote the Films in Focus column, ended in 1989 when he became a critic for the New York Observer.
He left the Voice, he told the San Jose Mercury News in 1994, because he was "tired of that atmosphere. It was too political, too radical, for my taste. I've always been sort of a centrist, an anomaly."
Sarris, who was editor in chief of the English-language version of the influential French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema from 1965 to 1967, was a founding member of the National Society of Film Critics.
When he married Haskell in 1969, Basinger said, "we were all thrilled for him: He found a mate worthy of his grace and intelligence."
Among Sarris' books are "The Films of Josef von Sternberg," "Interviews With Film Directors," "Confessions of a Cultist: On the Cinema, 1955-1969" and "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: The American Talking Film: History and Memory: 1927-1949."
He left the Observer in 2009 but continued teaching full time until 2010, when he suffered a fall "and realized he couldn't do it anymore and retired," said Haskell, his only immediate survivor.
Times staff writer Elaine Woo contributed to this report.