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Award-Winning Director Sidney Lumet Dies

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Filmmaker Sidney Lumet has died. He was 86. In a career spanning six decades, Lumet made dozens of films, including such classics as "Serpico," "The Verdict," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Network" and the jury room drama "12 Angry Men."

(Soundbite of film, "12 Angry Men")

Mr. HENRY FONDA (Actor): (as Juror Number 8) I don't really know what the truth is. I don't suppose anybody will ever really know. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent. But we're just gambling on probabilities. We may be wrong. We may be trying to let a guilty man go free, I don't know.

WERTHEIMER: Henry Fonda playing juror number 8 in "12 Angry Men."

Sidney Lumet was not a physically imposing man, barely five-foot-five, and was so insistent on working in New York that he remained a Hollywood outsider his whole life. So perhaps it made sense that his heroes tended to be little guys bucking the system: cops fighting corrupt police departments, an ambulance-chasing lawyer pulling himself together for a big case, and that bank robber in "Dog Day Afternoon" who, surrounded by police in New York, plays to the crowd.

(Soundbite of movie, "Dog Day Afternoon")

Mr. AL PACINO (Actor): (as Sonny Wortzik) Get over there. Go back there, man. Go over there, will ya? He wants to kill me so bad he can taste it.

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as Character) I got a (unintelligible)...

Mr. PACINO: Attica, Attica, Attica...

WERTHEIMER: "Dog Day Afternoon's" true story of a guy who robbed a bank to pay for his lover's sex change operation was not the sort of material most filmmakers went for in 1975. But it was perfect for Lumet: offbeat, complicated characters, gritty New York setting, socially intriguing issues.

Money was an issue in Lumet's early life. During the Depression, his parents, veterans of New York's Yiddish stage, thrust him into the spotlight when he was just a toddler. When Sidney worked, the family would eat. By his 20s, Lumet was directing his own New York acting troupe.

When Hollywood called, he brought his stage habits with him, insisting on extensive rehearsals before shooting started. That allowed him to shoot fewer takes, and that meant his projects came in early and under budget, even unusual, complicated projects, like his Oscar-winning satire, "Network," about a television executive's craven exploitation of a news anchor who's losing his mind.

(Soundbite of movie, "Network")

Mr. PETER FINCH (Actor): (as Howard Beale) I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it and stick your head out and yell, I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore.

WERTHEIMER: Lumet didn't really have a signature style. He could do literary, like Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night," which won acting awards for its entire cast, and he could do lavish, like "Murder on the Orient Express."

Lumet has been described as an unsentimental director, yet sensitive to his actors, an actor's director, as he told NPR in a 1995 interview.

Mr. SIDNEY LUMET: Part of my job is to become whatever the actor needs. I can speak many different acting languages. If you're a method actor, I can talk Stanislavsky. If you're a Royal Academy graduate, I can talk to you in those technique terms. So that is part of my job, to become whatever helps that actor fulfill what they're doing.

WERTHEIMER: Sidney Lumet died today at his home in New York City from lymphoma. He was 86. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.