John Schlesinger, 77; ‘an Actors’ Director,’ Oscar Winner for ‘Midnight Cowboy’

Times Staff Writer

John Schlesinger, the British director who first gained acclaim in the 1960s with films such as “Billy Liar” and “Darling” and capped the decade by winning a best director Oscar for “Midnight Cowboy,” his first American film, died Friday. He was 77.

Schlesinger had suffered a debilitating stroke in December 2000. He had been in and out of Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs over the last 90 days. He was admitted again Monday and was taken off life support Thursday.

In a feature film directing career that began in 1962 with “A Kind of Loving,” starring a relatively unknown Alan Bates, and ended in 2000 with “The Next Best Thing,” starring Madonna and Rupert Everett, Schlesinger amassed a relatively short but diverse filmography of 19 movies.


His best-known works, which range from the offbeat to the commercial and which met with varying degrees of success in a long career with its share of ups and downs, include “Far From the Madding Crowd,” “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” “The Day of the Locust,” “Marathon Man,” “Yanks,” “The Falcon and the Snowman” and “Pacific Heights.”

Over the years between film assignments, Schlesinger directed theater, opera and British television productions, including “An Englishman Abroad,” an award-winning 1983 BBC production starring Bates as British spy Guy Burgess.

Schlesinger, whose directing credits included a Paul McCartney music video, also was one of eight directors who contributed to the official 1972 Munich Olympics movie “Visions of Eight,” for which he covered the marathon in the track and field competition.


A Career Maker

A former British stage and film actor who began making documentary movies in the 1950s, Schlesinger earned a reputation as an actors’ director.

He guided Julie Christie to Oscar-winning stardom in “Darling,” the 1965 drama about a beautiful, disillusioned London model, which earned him a best director Oscar nomination.

And perhaps most memorably, in the 1969 film “Midnight Cowboy,” he directed Jon Voight in his career-making role as Joe Buck, the naive, pretty-boy Texas dishwasher who moves to New York City to become a gigolo and befriends Dustin Hoffman’s tubercular, gimpy con man from the Bronx, Ratso Rizzo.


“Midnight Cowboy,” based on James Leo Herlihy’s novel and rated X by the Motion Picture Assn. of America for its adult themes and content, was one of Schlesinger’s greatest commercial and critical successes.

Not only did Schlesinger win an Academy Award for his direction, but the movie won Oscars for best picture, the only X-rated film to receive the award, and for Waldo Salt’s screenplay.

“It had an enormous impact,” Richard Schickel, Time magazine film critic and film historian, told the Los Angeles Times this week. “It was extremely well performed and sort of unblinking in terms of its view of an ugly side of urban life: It was tough-minded, but, of course, went pretty sentimental at the end.”

The movie, Schickel said, “was very much part of that ‘60s era -- an era where studios really didn’t know what the public wanted, so they were very open to all kinds of stuff, and somebody like Schlesinger could come along and they’d say, ‘OK, let’s take a shot at that.’ ”

As a director, Schickel said, Schlesinger “was all over the map. But the movies of his highest period, whether ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ or ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday,’ partook of that spirit -- the spirit of ‘Let’s try that.’ I think Schlesinger was probably well matched to the spirit of that age.”

In 1994, when “Midnight Cowboy” was rereleased, Schlesinger told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he was happy to see that the movie had held up.

“The great thing about ‘Midnight Cowboy,’ ” he said, “is that we didn’t question what we were doing; we just did it with a total feeling of confidence and freedom. We didn’t think, ‘Oh, we’re being very groundbreaking on this.’ I just made the film the way I wanted to. I’d made a sufficient number of films by then to feel confident and free to tackle a subject, and I didn’t question it.

“There’s a lot to be said for ignorance, you know.”

Friends on Friday recalled a man who was extremely cultured, impeccably polite, and had a brilliant, cutting sense of humor.

“The picture I have of John is candles on a beautifully lit table and his teaching me about wine and cheese,” said Shirley MacLaine, who knew Schlesinger for many years and played an eccentric piano teacher in his 1988 drama “Madame Sousatzka.”

“For me, it was the wittiest, most mischievous acting-directing I’ve had,” MacLaine said Friday. “I think people call him an actors’ director because he brought things out in people that maybe they didn’t know were there: their own mischievousness and their own wit.”

In a statement Friday, Christie said: “Everyone who ever worked with John loved him. His contribution to cinema and particularly British cinema is enormous, and his work will live on in the shape of his wonderful films.”

Christie, who appeared in three Schlesinger movies and one television production, said she would always be grateful to him for casting her in the 1963 film “Billy Liar,” her first with him.

“He was clever enough to see in this awkward, terrified creature something that perhaps would never have been seen if it wasn’t for him,” she said.

Brenda Vaccaro, who appeared in “Midnight Cowboy” and remained close to Schlesinger, expressed regret Friday that he didn’t make more films.

“He was one of the great cinematic directors,” she told The Times. “I think we’ve lost a very masterful artist.”

Noting Schlesinger’s background in documentaries, Vaccaro said he “always was interested in human behavior and capturing that and having it be exactly as he saw it in real life. I think he was a great visionary about the truth. You couldn’t fool him.”

Richard Gere, who starred in Schlesinger’s 1979 romantic war drama “Yanks,” said in a statement Friday: “John was the best, and the best always wanted to work with him.

“John’s string of films in the ‘60s and ‘70s are as astonishingly good as any films made -- anytime, anywhere ... audacious, challenging, irascible, moving, witty, wise and deeply personal.

“He was an original.”


Early Interest in Arts

Schlesinger was born in London, the son of a pediatrician. His father, who played the cello, and his mother, who played the violin, encouraged his interest in the arts. As a child, he became an accomplished pianist -- and an amateur magician.

“The mixture of spoof, technical dexterity and audience control of the illusionist closely parallels the craft of the filmmaker,” he told Film Comment in 1969. “My interest in magic ... may well have been the first glimmering of my ambition to translate images and illusions of life onto the screen.”

When he was 11, Schlesinger was given a home movie camera. Then, while serving with the Royal Engineers during World War II, he made an amateur film, “Horrors.” He also performed his magic act in the Combined Services Unit.

After his army discharge, he studied English literature at Balliol College, Oxford University, where he joined the Oxford University Dramatic Society, became president of the Experimental Theatre Club and toured America in Shakespearean plays with the Oxford dramatic society his senior year.

Throughout much of the 1950s, Schlesinger worked in England, Australia and New Zealand, acting in nearly 20 plays with various repertory companies, as well as playing roles on radio, on TV and in five feature films.

Schlesinger’s interest in filmmaking -- he had continued his amateur work while at Oxford -- led to his making a 15-minute documentary in 1956, “Sunday in the Park,” which was followed by a series of documentary assignments for the BBC.

“Terminus,” a 1961 documentary he was commissioned to make on daily life in London’s Waterloo Station, was given nationwide theatrical distribution and earned a Venice Festival Gold Lion and a British Academy Award.

With “A Kind of Loving,” his acclaimed 1962 comedy-drama about a couple forced to marry when the young woman becomes pregnant, Schlesinger joined the ranks of Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and other social-realist directors of the British New Cinema. “A Kind of Loving” won the Golden Bear Award at the 1962 Berlin Film Festival.

The great success of “Midnight Cowboy” allowed Schlesinger to make what has been described as his most personal film, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” the 1971 drama about a family doctor (Peter Finch) and a divorced working woman (Glenda Jackson) who are both having affairs with the same male artist (Murray Head).

The film earned Schlesinger another Oscar nomination as director.

The movie was the first to ever deal with homosexuality as neither “hysterical nor funny,” as Schlesinger, himself openly gay, once put it. It also features one of the first romantic screen kisses between a gay couple.

“One of the things that makes John so important as an artist is he was really the very first director to deal with ideas of gay life and gay love in a way that was truly ahead of its time,” said William Mann, who had Schlesinger’s cooperation in a biography he is writing of the director.

“ ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday,’ ” Mann said, “is a revolutionary film.”

“John took the character of Peter Finch in that movie and made him the equal of the character played by Glenda Jackson. What he was doing was saying gay love is the same as all love,” said Mann, the author of “Behind the Screen,” a 2001 exploration of the gay experience in Hollywood.

“Up until that point in movies, we’d seen gay characters portrayed as victims or murderers, and here we have Peter Finch playing a noble character with whom the audience sympathizes.

“The gayness is incidental to the plot in that the story is about love and about relationships. That was truly radical in 1971, and John just put it right out there,” Mann said.

“He wasn’t making this hard-edged statement; he didn’t hit people over the head with it. He made it very natural and, indeed, that’s how he lived his life too.”

Schlesinger is survived by a brother, Roger, and a sister, Hilary, both of London; and his life partner of 36 years, photographer Michael Childers.

A private memorial service will be held in London next week. Public memorials will be held in Los Angeles and London in late September.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Project Angel Food in Los Angeles, the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills, or the Desert AIDS Project in Palm Springs.