Don Siegel; Directed ‘Dirty Harry,’ ‘Body Snatchers’


Don Siegel, who overcame a halting start as an actor to become an Academy Award-winning film director and friend and mentor to such stars as Clint Eastwood, has died in Nipomo.

Best known for such fast-moving crime and action melodramas as “Dirty Harry,” the Western “Two Mules for Sister Sara” and the 1950s science fiction allegory “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Siegel was 78 when he died Saturday of cancer at his Central California home.

Born in Chicago the son of a mandolin virtuoso, Siegel was sent to England, where he studied at Cambridge and at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.


After an unrewarding start as an actor, he entered the film industry shortly after returning to the United States and began carrying cans of film at Warner Bros., observing later that “it was a bad way to start. Everybody should start at the top and then work their way down.”

The director, who was to become known for the brute tautness of his work in pictures such as “The Verdict,” “The Big Steal” and “Riot in Cell Block 11,” credited his training in the montage department at Warner, where various shots were used to indicate the passage of time.

“You came to the belief,” he told The Times in 1972, “that audiences above 12 years of age have creative faculties for understanding things without their being spelled out.”

Some of those transition sequences can still be seen in “Casablanca” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

His first directing credits came with short subjects and brought him two Academy Awards, both in 1945: “Star in the Night” (a parable on the life of Christ) and “Hitler Lives” (about the Nazi spirit still existing in the world).

By the 1950s, Siegel was working in film and TV, doing pilots for “Line Up,” “Bus Stop,” “Convoy” and “Destiny.” He also did a television movie of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers,” which starred Lee Marvin, Ronald Reagan, John Cassavetes and Angie Dickinson and was later released theatrically.


His relationship with Eastwood began when he directed him in “Coogan’s Bluff” and continued into “Dirty Harry” in 1971.

Although Eastwood was as conservative as Siegel was liberal, they became close friends and their association continued with “Play Misty for Me” (in which they switched roles with Eastwood directing and Siegel playing a bartender); “Two Mules” and “Escape From Alcatraz.”

Eastwood once called his friend “an extremely underrated guy who’s never gotten the credit he deserves.”

Some say Siegel was more appreciated in Europe, where he was discovered by French film buffs, including Francois Truffaut, the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema , and by British critics. All proclaimed him an auteur.

The feisty Siegel was considered a hands-on director with definite and vocal ideas about the portrayals of social misfits who dominated his oeuvre. He quarreled with writers, studio chiefs (Jack Warner in particular) and actors (John Wayne and Bette Midler, whom he directed in “The Shootist” and “Jinxed,” respectively).

He often used non-actors in his films--prostitutes at Reno’s Mustang Ranch in “Charley Varrick,” Folsom Prison inmates for “Riot in Cell Block 11”--and throughout his life maintained a dark humor about himself and his pictures.


He liked to tell of the time he approached 20th Century Fox about filming a story called “Midnight Cowboy,” but they had dropped his option and the picture eventually was made by director John Schlesinger.

Schlesinger and the film were “brilliant,” Siegel said years later, and “I think the world owes a vote of thanks to 20th Century Fox for not letting me make it.”

In 1980, Siegel was honored with a retrospective at USC and said he was flattered and amazed.

“I never thought in terms of retrospectives. I thought in terms of: ‘I hope this is not going to be my last picture because they’ve discovered that I don’t know anything.’ ”

Siegel once was married to actress Viveca Lindfors. His survivors include his wife, Carol, and five children.

Donations in his name are asked to be sent to Vital Options, a cancer support group, 4419 Coldwater Canyon Ave., Studio City 91604.