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Obituaries : Frank Perry; Director of ‘David and Lisa’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frank Perry, a pioneer independent filmmaker who directed the landmark low-budget “David and Lisa” and went on to do “Diary of a Mad Housewife” and the bigger-budget but less successful “Mommie Dearest,” has died. He was 65.

Perry, who made a successful documentary about his own cancer, died Tuesday at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of prostate cancer.

When he was diagnosed five years ago, he detailed the disease and its possible treatments and interviewed experts to create “On the Bridge” as personal therapy.

Internationally successful when it was shown at film festivals and art houses, the 1993 documentary showed Perry telling his oncologist that he appreciated the experience of living with terminal cancer “because of the extent to which it changed my life and the way it changed how I was dealing with things.”

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“I know I’m not out of the woods,” he told the doctor, “but being in the woods was wonderful for me.”

A New Yorker who acted in small theaters as a teen-ager, Perry won a teaching scholarship to the University of Miami. He worked as a stage manager and associate producer for the Theater Guild, hosted a “Playwright at Work” series on public television, and independently produced an off-Broadway play, “The Pretenders.” In 1958, he married his first wife, Eleanor, a playwright.

The couple moved into filmmaking in 1962 after Eleanor Perry’s teen-age daughter from a previous marriage handed her a book about two emotionally disturbed adolescents titled “David and Lisa.” She turned it into a screenplay for her husband to direct.

A decade ahead of the independent film movement of the 1970s, the Perrys raised $200,000 from people investing from $315 to $15,000 each, cast the picture from their New York apartment, completed shooting in 25 days and spent the leftover cash on champagne to celebrate.

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The little film Hollywood hadn’t wanted won awards at the Venice and San Francisco film festivals, the accolade from French director Jean Renoir as “a turning point in world cinema,” and Academy Award nominations for directing and screenwriting for the Perrys.

Their first film may well have been their greatest success, but they continued with a respectable string--"Ladybug, Ladybug,” “The Swimmer,” “Last Summer,” and in 1970 their last, “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” starring Carrie Snodgress, Richard Benjamin and Frank Langella.

Perry varied from his small and independent philosophy in 1981, directing his biggest-budget movie and scoring one of his biggest critical flops with the soap opera of Joan Crawford, “Mommie Dearest,” for Paramount.

He bounced back with another independent film, the comedy thriller “Compromising Positions” starring Susan Sarandon in 1985. Briefly an independent film executive with Corsair Pictures, Perry found that he worked best on his own.

“All I’ve ever wanted to do is survive,” he told The Times in 1987, “which I think is an estimable goal.”

Perry also directed “Doc,” “Play It as It Lays,” and adaptations for television from Truman Capote stories, “A Thanksgiving Memory” and “A Christmas Memory.”

After his divorce from his first wife, Perry married and divorced writer Barbara Goldsmith. In 1992, he married his Aspen ski instructor, Virginia Brush, who survives.


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