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Michael Apted, ‘Seven Up!’ director and three-time DGA president, dies at 79

Michael Apted, director and former DGA leader
Michael Apted, who directed “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” died Thursday, according to his publicist.
(Arkasha Stevenson / Los Angeles Times)

British director Michael Apted, whose varied career ranged from dramas like “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Gorillas in the Mist” to the landmark “Up” documentary series, died Thursday, his publicist confirmed Friday. He was 79. No further details, including cause of death, were given.

Apted’s prolific four decades in film and television spanned many genres and included the groundbreaking “Up” series — which chronicled the lives of 14 British men and women starting at age 7 in seven-year increments, from 1964’s “Seven Up!” to 2019’s “63 Up” — adult-oriented Hollywood dramas like “Gorky Park” and “Nell,” and splashy Hollywood blockbusters including the James Bond movie “The World Is Not Enough.” Released in 1980, Apted’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” earned seven Academy Award nominations, including best picture, and won star Sissy Spacek an Oscar for her turn as country star Loretta Lynn.

One of the industry’s most respected journeymen directors, Apted served three terms as president of the Directors Guild of America from 2003 to 2009, receiving the guild’s Robert B. Aldrich Award in 2013.

“Our hearts are heavy today as we mourn the passing of esteemed director, longtime DGA leader and my friend Michael Apted,” DGA President Thomas Schlamme said in a statement. “His legacy will be forever woven into the fabric of cinema and our guild. A fearless visionary as a director and unparalleled guild leader, Michael saw the trajectory of things when others didn’t, and we were all the beneficiaries of his wisdom and lifelong dedication.”

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Raised in East London, Apted cut his teeth in the British television industry, where he was hired as a researcher and assistant to director Paul Almond on “Seven Up!,” which was initially envisioned as a one-off documentary looking at British schoolchildren from different backgrounds of class and education.

“My assignment was to choose selections from the empowered class and the unempowered class and try to get some geographical variety,” Apted told The Times in 2013. “We weren’t particularly interested in the character of the children at that point. It was how they were a product of their class and how that determined their view of the world and their view of their options and each other.”

Under Apted’s direction, the project expanded into an ongoing series that, through installments every seven years over more than half a century, would become not only one of Apted’s signature achievements but a humanistic landmark in the documentary genre, the twists and turns of its subjects’ lives followed by a devoted legion of fans.

“On a grand scale the project considers if there is any truth to the class-conscious idea behind the original film, the Jesuit notion of ‘Give me the child until he is 7 and I will give you the man,’” wrote former Times film critic Kenneth Turan in his review of “63 Up.” “But also being presented is a chance to see what the passage of years has done to the mind-set and the lives of individuals we have spent so much time with over so many decades they’ve become a quasi-family.”

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After making his feature debut with the 1972 drama “The Triple Echo,” Apted quickly made a name for himself as a filmmaker with a facility for all manner of stories. Even after his career took him to Hollywood, where he became one of the industry’s most reliable directors of studio dramas and thrillers, he continued to keep one foot planted in the nonfiction world. He directed such documentaries as 1992’s “Incident at Oglala,” about the 1975 killing of two FBI agents at a Sioux reservation in South Dakota, and 1994’s “Moving the Mountain,” which looked at the Tiananmen Square protests.

In 1985, Apted directed “Bring on the Night,” about Sting’s first solo album and tour, and shared a Grammy with the musician for best long-form video.

A biopic of famed primate researcher Dian Fossey, Apted’s 1988 film “Gorillas in the Mist” earned five Oscar nominations, including a lead actress nod for Sigourney Weaver. Six years later, Apted’s drama “Nell” earned Jodie Foster a lead actress nomination for her work as a woman raised in an isolated cabin who encounters the world for the first time.

Elected to lead the Directors Guild in 2003, Apted steered the group through a period of tremendous change and upheaval in the film industry. “I did three terms and two negotiations, and the second negotiation really was about a brave new world — the world of new media, where nobody knew what was going on,” Apted told The Times in 2013. “It’s still unclear, but in those early days it was very difficult to know how big it was, how important it was going to be, how quickly the world would change and how much we should hang on to the old world that we knew and how much we should in a sense begin to come to terms with the new world.”

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“With his steady hand, acerbic wit and keen eye to the future, he has steered our guild through times of great change, setting the path for our industry and benefiting thousands and thousands of us,” Schlamme said in his statement Friday. “He always generously extended a hand to those behind him and understood the importance of activating leadership in the next generation.”

In 2002, Apted was also elected to serve on the motion picture academy’s board of governors representing the documentary branch.

In recent years, Apted continued to adapt to the changes in the industry, moving between film projects like “Chasing Mavericks” and television work like “Masters of Sex,” “Ray Donovan” and “Bloodline,” always following his curiosity wherever it took him.

“Things go in cycles,” he told The Times in 2013. “There was the independent film business for a bit and it got bought up by the majors and imploded, and now a good chunk of the American film industry is alive and well and living on cable.”

Apted is survived by his wife, Paige, and children Jim, John and Lily.

Times staff writer Christie D’Zurilla contributed to this report.


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