John Frankenheimer, 72; Director Was Master of the Political Thriller


John Frankenheimer, the director best known for the classic political thriller “The Manchurian Candidate” but who was equally successful in television’s Golden Age and, more recently, making films for cable, died Saturday morning. He was 72.

He died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications from a stroke following recent spinal surgery, a publicist for HBO announced.

Frankenheimer was part of a group of filmmakers that included Franklin Schaffner, Sidney Lumet and George Roy Hill who started in live television and forged influential careers in film. By the time Frankenheimer was 30, he had received five Emmy nominations for live dramas.


He brought innovative camera work and a strong sense of moral justice to his early efforts on the big screen in films that included “The Young Savages,” “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” “All Fall Down,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Seven Days in May,” “Seconds” and “The Train.”

“Frankenheimer developed in live television a kind of visceral and highly energized way of filmmaking,” said director Frank Pierson, current president of the Board of Directors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “It gave us a new way of looking at film. He really changed the language of film.”

As one Times reporter noted some years ago: “You won’t find much romance or many complex leading ladies in a Frankenheimer film: For the most part his characters are men, real men, fighting each other or some outside force trying to destroy a way of life. His films are known for their biting look at this country’s political and social times.”

But despite his early success, Frankenheimer’s career went into sharp decline in the 1970s and ‘80s, when he made a series of films that were both critical and commercial failures.

He battled depression after the 1968 assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, a close friend, and later alcoholism. He moved to France for a number of years and studied cooking.

With the re-release of “The Manchurian Candidate” in 1988, 26 years after its initial release, however, a critical reappraisal of his work brought him new opportunities, this time doing films for cable outlets such as Turner Network Television and HBO.


He made the most of those opportunities, winning Emmys in 1994 for HBO’s drama on the uprising at the New York prison Attica, “Against the Wall”; in 1995 for “The Burning Season” on the life of Brazilian environmentalist Chico Mendes, also on HBO; and in 1996 for the TNT miniseries “Andersonville,” about the Civil War prison. In 1998, he won for the TNT miniseries, “George Wallace.”

His most recent HBO movie, “Path to War,” on Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War, has received strong reviews. Also among his later work was “Ronin,” in 1998, which starred Robert De Niro.

Frankenheimer was born in New York City, the son of a Jewish stockbroker, and was raised Catholic by his Irish American mother.

At one time he wanted to be a priest, but later he was drawn into drama and attended Williams College with the thought of being an actor.

After graduation with a degree in English in 1951, he did some small theater before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force. Assigned to a photographic service squadron in Burbank, he directed a documentary film about asphalt and another about a cattle ranch.

He knew he wanted to make films when he was discharged in 1953, so he returned to New York City and talked his way into a job at CBS as an assistant director. His early work was on weather, news and sports programs. He later did segments of Edward R. Murrow’s celebrity interview program “Person to Person,” and dramatizations of historical events in news format on “You Are There” and “See It Now.”


He was seen as a bright, up-and-coming director and was given chances to direct live television dramas on “Playhouse 90” and other anthology series. He was steadily employed in this capacity, directing 152 dramas.

He got Ingrid Bergman to do “Turn of the Screw,” her first television role in America, in 1959. She won an Emmy for that performance. He made “Days of Wine and Roses,” a riveting look at alcoholism, for CBS’ “Playhouse 90.”

“It was very exciting,” Frankenheimer once told a Times reporter. “If they had live television right now, I’d still be doing it. You had total control as a director. It was live, so we had the final cut. And you had no such thing as a difficult actor.”

He turned to the big screen in 1957 with the theatrical version of one of his television dramas, “The Young Stranger,” starring James MacArthur. But he found the experience not particularly rewarding and went back to television.

The year that really put Frankenheimer on the map as a filmmaker was 1962.

He made “The Birdman of Alcatraz” with Burt Lancaster, the first of five films that the two men would make together.

Critics noted that Frankenheimer got an unusually restrained but highly effective performance from Lancaster, who earned an Academy Award nomination for best actor. “I think we fulfilled a need for each other,” Frankenheimer commented to the Washington Post on his relationship with Lancaster.


“He wanted a director who was technically adept and didn’t waste a lot of time, because Burt was not a time-waster. He hated profligate waste, and I was kind of a lean, mean director and still am, and he liked that. I needed an actor who could get in there and do it and who was an example. We were very, very close.”

That became a hallmark of Frankenheimer’s career: working well with most actors.

“He got the best out of the actors--but he was a demanding director,” said Jack Shea, former president of the Directors Guild of America and a longtime friend.

“I am not saying that as critical.” Shea said. “It is wonderful to be able to do that, and the actors loved working with him.”

“The Manchurian Candidate,” the dark thriller about a communist conspiracy to take control of the U.S. government, came out the same year but drew a mixed reaction when it was released.

After “Seven Days in May,” another political thriller, was released in 1964, Frankenheimer seemed firmly entrenched as a top director in Hollywood. A year later he made his first color film, the car-racing saga “Grand Prix.”

Always politically liberal, Frankenheimer spent part of 1968 working on Kennedy’s presidential campaign, acting as director of campaign spots.


But after Kennedy’s assassination, Frankenheimer developed what he later called “a severe case of burnout.”

“I was 38 years old, and my world was over as I knew it,” Frankenheimer told the Washington Post some time back.

He spent several years in France, where he studied cooking at the Cordon Bleu, emerging as a gourmet chef. He also developed what he later conceded was a severe drinking problem, which harmed his filmmaking.

“I had a drinking problem,” he told the New York Times. “It took a toll on me. And the state of mind you’re in when you have a problem like that, even when you’re not drunk, is the most dangerous time. Because you make decisions that are not in your best interests--about your life, about your career choices and everything.”

Frankenheimer stopped drinking in 1981, but by then the quality filmmaking work had pretty much stopped as well.

But when “The Manchurian Candidate” was re-released in 1988, critics rushed to dub it an American classic, and a reappraisal of Frankenheimer’s work began.


“This picture may be the most sophisticated political satire ever made in Hollywood,” said the late New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael.

“It’s done me a lot of good,” Frankenheimer said at the time. “Anytime people say you’ve directed a classic--well, most people haven’t directed anything that, 20 years later, they want to be remembered for.”

A tall man with piercing blue yes, a loud, distinctive voice and a shock of white hair, Frankenheimer had a strong personality.

“As a friend,” said Pierson, “he was tough-minded, opinionated, forceful and could get very angry. He was great fun to fight with.”

Angela Lansbury, who appeared in two films for Frankenheimer, “All Fall Down” and “The Manchurian Candidate”--for which she received a best supporting actress nomination as Laurence Harvey’s politically ambitious mother--was shocked to learn of Frankenheimer’s death Saturday.

“We have lost a wonderful champion of our business,” she said, “He was such a good man. I am deeply saddened. It is so unexpected.”


Frankenheimer is survived by his wife of 41 years, Evans; two daughters, Elise Riggs and Kristi Frankenheimer; a grandson, Dylan Frankenheimer; a sister, Jean Hieber; and a brother, Richard Frankenheimer.

Plans for a memorial service are pending.