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Sir David Lean, Director of ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ Dies : Movies: The Oscar winner’s sweeping epics include ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ and ‘Dr. Zhivago.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sir David Lean, the Oscar-winning director whose grandiose epics over six decades often made him a bigger star than many of his actors, died Tuesday in London.

His lawyer, Tony Reeves, issued a statement about his death but it did not disclose the cause.

Lean was 83 and had been hospitalized in Paris in January after being stricken on the set of what proved his final film, “Nostromo,” based on the Joseph Conrad novel. Work on the film had since been suspended.

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Lean, who once said he “never thought (he) would have the luck to go into films,” was best known for directing such cinematic masterpieces as “Lawrence of Arabia,” a sweeping adventure about the obsessive desert hero, and “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” a critically acclaimed examination of the implacable madness of war.

His relatively few but meticulously crafted pictures--among them “Dr. Zhivago” and “A Passage to India"--won 28 Academy Awards, including best director for “Lawrence” and “Kwai.”

“I don’t know of any director who doesn’t go down on one knee” whenever either film is discussed, director Steven Spielberg told Time magazine in 1984. “I feel a great reverence for David Lean. . . . He’s the last of a generation of classical artists as picture makers.”

That sentiment was echoed by Sam Spiegel, who produced “Kwai” and “Lawrence.” “In all my career,” Spiegel said in an interview with The Times in 1983, “I have not worked with anyone who remotely approaches David’s ability to put images on the screen.”

One of his final tributes came in March, 1990, when the American Film Institute named him the recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award. Alfred Hitchcock, considered with Lean the greatest of the British film directors, had received the honor earlier.

Born the son of an accountant in the fashionable London suburb of Croydon, Lean grew up the older of two brothers in a strict Quaker household that looked with disapproval on the cinema. His initial exposure to movies came through the family charwoman he remembered as a “Mrs. Egerton,” who would re-enact with great zeal the latest Charlie Chaplin film.

Mrs. Egerton’s performances so impressed the boy that, at 13, David began sneaking out of his Quaker boarding school to go to the local movie theater, eager to see what he had only imagined.

As he recalled decades later, the first film he saw was a 1921 version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes mystery “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

Lean was instantly captivated by “that beam of light traveling through the smoke” to create images on the screen. “It had an immediate magic for me.”

But it was not until he was 19 that Lean embarked on his career in films after an unsuccessful yearlong stint at his father’s accounting firm. He was taken on without pay at London’s Gaumont Studios as a “gofer,” where his primary duties were to fetch tea and load film.

His enthusiasm was undampened, however, and quickly led him through the ranks. From unpaid underling he quickly became “number-board boy,” responsible for holding up the cards that designated camera takes. After a short time at this and other positions, including camera assistant, he eventually achieved the title of “third assistant director.”

It was along that path that he discovered his first love of the movie business: editing. A sympathetic projectionist at Gaumont allowed Lean to join him in the projection booth to watch each day’s rushes.

He channeled his efforts into editing, gaining experience at Gaumont Sound News and British Movietone News.

Newsreels gave way to features, and, at 30, Lean made a name for himself with his work on Gabriel Pascal’s successful production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” In “Pygmalion” Lean first demonstrated the overriding concern for the visual image that would rule his future exploits--he ignored the soundtrack and used a silent-movie projector to edit the film.

“I like the excitement of finishing shooting and then starting with the first shot of Reel 1 and putting it all together myself,” Lean told The Times in 1984, as he was finishing direction of “A Passage to India,” which he also edited.

“I began as an editor, after all, and I love it,” he said, adding that in editing “there’s just the film there. Nobody to argue with you or answer back.”

From editing, Lean turned his attention to directing.

His first assignment came in 1942, when playwright Noel Coward asked him to co-direct his wartime film “In Which We Serve.”

Coward reportedly offered Lean two pieces of advice: “One, don’t pop out of the same hole twice (repeating yourself). Two, do what pleases you, and if what pleases you does not please the public, then get out of show business.”

“In Which We Serve” did please the public, and marked the beginning of a profitable pairing of Lean with Coward’s material. With the help of two colleagues, he founded a production company, Cineguild, and went on to direct a screen version of Coward’s classic comedy “Blithe Spirit” with Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings.

Lean created a classic himself with his adaptation of Coward’s “Brief Encounter.” Hailed as “a landmark among British films,” the story of the doomed liaison between a suburban housewife and a doctor won the award for the finest British production of 1945 at the International Film Festival in Cannes.

Years later, in an interview for Lean’s 1989 biography, Trevor Howard, star of “Brief Encounter” remembered his director not only for Lean’s brilliance but for the mental anguish his sometimes truculent craftsmanship produced in many of his actors.

“By the time David gets round to filming ‘Gandhi,’ Howard said slyly, “Mahatma will have to be played by Katie Hepburn, because she’ll be the only actor still talking to him.”

Emboldened by his success with “Brief Encounter,” Lean, with his Cineguild partners, produced back-to-back adaptations of two Charles Dickens novels--"Great Expectations” in 1946, which won three Oscars, and “Oliver Twist” in 1948, which cast Alec Guinness as Fagin.

A period of coolly received films followed, and the three Cineguild partners went their separate ways in 1950. Lean and his wife, actress Kay Walsh, had also decided to go their separate ways the year before, but not long afterward Lean married again, this time to actress Ann Todd.

Todd starred with Sir Ralph Richardson in Lean’s 1952 film “Breaking the Sound Barrier,” which had its origins in a newspaper account Lean read of a jet that unaccountably disintegrated in midair.

Critical acclaim was immediate. The film critic Henry Hart wrote, “With this film Lean breaks through the thin but definite line that divides exceptionally good directors from great ones.” The movie won the British Film Academy’s award for the year’s best picture, with Richardson taking the award for best actor.

Lean rode the crest of this wave into Hollywood, where many of the rest of his films would be produced, starting with “The Bridge on the River Kwai” in 1957. Guinness, who later said he owed Lean “an enormous amount” for launching his acting career, joined the director once again to star in the film that earned Lean his first Oscar.

The second came in 1962 with “Lawrence,” the sumptuous picture for which Lean was best known for the rest of his career. Lean brought his legendary intensity to the project, which took three years to produce and more than a year to shoot. As “Lawrence” producer Spiegel said, “David’s greatest virtue is his enormous concentration. He’s deeply engrossed in what he’s doing and has an idee fixe about anything he does.”

Lean acknowledged his intensity in a 1989 interview with the New York Times, describing his approach as the result of “falling in love, really. I become obsessed with a project.”

His single-mindedness spawned an unwavering quest for perfection in his work. Hepburn, a good friend of Lean who starred in his 1954 film “Summertime,” wrote in the introduction to his biography: “Nothing gets in his way. He’ll stand and look and stare. He won’t be hurried. He won’t budge until he can smell perfection. That’s his aim, work or play.”

The perfectionist in Lean became legendary on the set of “Lawrence.” In one scene, where a Rolls-Royce was shown driving up to a hotel, Lean reportedly insisted that the double-R insignia on the car’s axle be “absolutely upright” when the car stopped.

“Lawrence” won seven Academy Awards, including best picture.

In 1965, Lean oversaw yet another international spectacular, “Dr. Zhivago,” the classic adaptation of the Boris Pasternak novel. The movie featured Julie Christie and Omar Sharif, the actor catapulted to fame for his role opposite Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Then, however, the fertile field of Lean’s directing career experienced a long drought, starting in 1970, when “Ryan’s Daughter” opened to extremely poor reviews. “After ‘Ryan’s Daughter,’ ” Lean said, “I had such terrible notices that I really lost heart.”

But he did not give up trying. For more than three years during the 1970s he attempted to film a remake of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” a dream he had cherished for years.

Unfortunately, the dream became what Lean later called “the biggest regret of my whole career.” An estimated budget of $50 million brought resistance from all the major studios. The screenwriter of “Mutiny,” Robert Bolt, as well as two producers, withdrew one by one from the project until Lean was left with nothing.

Insult was added to injury when Orion Pictures picked up the project without Lean, who had abandoned the sea epic for other ideas, and released a version (“The Bounty”) starring Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson, directed by Roger Donaldson.

“It was three years’ work wasted,” Lean said in 1984. “And the sad part is that it was the best script I’ve ever had. It was really a cracker, and it would have made a marvelous film. But after all that work, they pulled the rug from under me. Because of that I haven’t gone to see the film that was eventually directed. . . .

“I just couldn’t face it.”

The long dry period meant that when Lean geared up to make another film in the early 1980s, an adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel “A Passage to India,” few studios expressed interest. Lean found himself writing the script without payment as John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin, the film’s producers, scouted for financial backers.

In the end, through a rather tortuous deal struck with EMI, Columbia Pictures and Home Box Office, the team received the go-ahead.

The director was back, and he had something to prove.

“The most dreadful lies were told about me at the time. It was said that I’d become swollen-headed, that I would ruin companies,” Lean fumed. “I heard the stories. . . . I was so furious when I heard the rumors that I thought, ‘I’ll show them. I’ll make this film and I’ll make it quickly.’ And from start to finish it took just over a year.” Lean was 76 at the time.

With Victor Banerjee, Peggy Ashcroft, Judy Davis and old friend Guinness leading the cast, and with Lean headlining as screenwriter-director-editor, the film opened in 1984 to a warm reception. Ashcroft won an Oscar for her role and said of Lean on Tuesday that “he worked right up to the end, didn’t he? And what an achievement that was.”

Afterward, with the focus of his intensity gone, Lean confessed to feeling the same sense of loss he felt when each of his films was completed.

“You work for months with a group of people, it’s a circus and you’re the ringmaster, then suddenly it’s over and you are on your own--you feel a terrible sense of having been deserted, and lonely. It takes me two or three months to recoup.”

A knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in June, 1984, recognizing his contribution to the arts, helped Lean recover his spirits.

So did settling down back in England, in a renovated wharf house along the Thames in London’s East End, after “living out of a Rolls-Royce and suitcase for years.”

His energy for directing remained unflagged and the sharp-featured filmmaker, whose face was once described as “the envy of a caricaturist,” returned one last time to his director’s chair for “Nostromo.”

In one of his final interviews--last year for the Times of London--Lean summed up his career in a single sentence:

“I just love telling stories.”

Lean was married for the sixth time in December to 51-year-old interior designer Sandra Cooke. He also is survived by a son, Peter. His funeral will be private with a public memorial to be scheduled later.

DAVID LEAN’S GREATEST HITS Principal films directed by Lean:

“In Which We Serve” (with Noel Coward), 1942*

“This Happy Breed,” 1944

“Blithe Spirit,” 1945

“Brief Encounter,” 1945

“Great Expectations,” 1946*

“Oliver Twist,” 1948*

“One Woman’s Story” 1949

“Madeleine,” 1950

“Breaking the Sound Barrier,” 1952

“Hobson’s Choice,” 1954*

“Summertime,” 1955*

“The Bridge on the River Kwai,” 1957*

“Lawrence of Arabia,” 1962*

“Dr. Zhivago,” 1965*

“Ryan’s Daughter,” 1970*

“A Passage to India,” 1984*

*Readily available on videocasette

SOURCE: Associated Press, Los Angeles Times

REMEMBERING DAVID LEAN

A legacy of elegant majesty. F1


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