John Guillermin dies at 89; directed ‘The Towering Inferno,’ ‘King Kong’ remake

Director John Guillermin in 1979.

Director John Guillermin in 1979.

(Los Angeles Times)

John Guillermin, the veteran British director best known for star-laden, special effects-driven action epics — most notably “The Towering Inferno” and the 1976 remake of “King Kong”— has died at 89.

Guillermin, who made more than 30 movies during his lengthy career, died of a heart attack Sunday at his Topanga Canyon home, according to his wife, Mary.

Although not a favorite of critics, Guillermin directed many Hollywood legends over the years, including Peter Sellers, Bette Davis, Orson Welles and Fred Astaire.

“The Towering Inferno,” the 1974 blockbuster about a burning skyscraper, was teeming with stars, beginning with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. Often named one of the best disaster movies of all time, it was nominated for eight Oscars and won three, for best original song (“We May Never Love Like This Again”), cinematography and editing.


Guillermin also directed the 1976 version of “King Kong,” which drew steady crowds despite critical pans. A sequel, “King Kong Lives” (1986), was his last theatrical feature.

Born in London to French parents Nov. 11, 1925, Guillermin studied at Cambridge University before joining the Royal Air Force near the end of World War II.

After the war, he began his film career in France working on documentaries and by his mid-20s was directing feature films.

His early work included the British comedies “Hi Jinks in Society” (1949) and “Miss Robin Hood” (1952), which starred Margaret Rutherford.

His first major film was “Town on Trial,” a thriller starring John Mills as a police inspector investigating the murder of an attractive young woman. The victim was portrayed by Maureen Connell, whom Guillermin married. The couple later divorced.

“Waltz of the Toreadors,” a 1962 comedy based on a Jean Anouilh play and starring Sellers, was one of his favorites because, he told The Times in 1978, it concerned “the irony of old age and had a light touch.”

Later, he was best known for cinematic spectacle as in the raging pyrotechnics of “Towering Inferno,” which featured McQueen as a heroic fire chief, Newman as the high-rise’s architect, O.J. Simpson as security chief and Jennifer Jones as a wealthy maven.

“King Kong,” his remake of the 1933 classic, starred Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin and Jessica Lange and was not beloved by critics. One of the few to praise it was David Thomson, who wrote that it was “pretty, amused, touching, and very clever in seeing the love story within the famous horror.”


Most of the credit for the film went to its high-powered producer, Dino de Laurentiis, leaving the director feeling unnoticed. Yet his affection for the project remained strong.

“The original ‘Kong’ was part of my childhood, and I loved it,” he told The Times in 1977. “What I wanted to do was to re-create what I’d felt about it the first time I saw it, but still adapt the story to our own day.”

Besides his wife, Guillermin, who moved from London to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, is survived by a daughter and a granddaughter.