“He was an excellent mechanic. … His hands were magical,” Penn said. “But he was an evasive man for someone to try to make contact with. I think I’m like him in some ways. I’m not the most available of men, emotionally or personally.”
He was no filmgoer as a child; books and baseball mattered more. Penn was frightened by a horror picture when he was 5 and said he did not see another movie until his teens, when Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” “staggered” him.
He was known for allowing actors to improvise _ and getting a wide range of expression from them in return. He believed words are to the theater as action is to film: “A look, a simple look, will do it.”
Penn’s 1960s success was bracketed by frustration. Early in his career, he was so angered by how Warner Bros. changed “The Left Handed Gun,” a Western released in 1958, that he stopped making movies and turned to Broadway. He was fired from “The Train,” a 1964 film, over disagreements with the lead actor, Burt Lancaster. And none of his later works found favor at the box office, though several _ “Night Moves” (1975), “The Missouri Breaks” (1976) and “Four Friends” (1981) _ won critics’ praise.
Penn decided to live in New York, rather than Los Angeles, as Hollywood soured on his social vision. Broadway, too, seemed increasingly drawn to blockbuster musicals rather than serious drama, further marginalizing Penn.
“It was frustrating and more than a little humiliating,” Penn once told The New York Times.
“It’s not that I’ve drifted away from film,” he said in another interview. “I’m very drawn to film, but I’m not sure that film is drawn to me.”
Arthur Hiller Penn was born in Philadelphia on Sept. 27, 1922, the son of Harry and Sonia Penn and brother of Irving Penn.
Although both sons were involved in the visual arts, Arthur Penn later said that he saw little in common in their work and rarely discussed the ties between them. (Beatty would claim the director was influenced profoundly by his brother, who was known for a spare but dramatic photographic style. The older brother died in October 2009.)
Penn joined the Army during World War II, formed a dramatic troupe at Fort Jackson, S.C., was often in trouble for behaving disrespectfully to his superiors and was in an infantry unit that fought in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, he studied literature in Italy for two years, then returned to New York, where he found work as a floor manager on NBC-TV’s “Colgate Comedy Hour.”
By the early 1950s, Penn was writing and directing TV dramas. In 1956, he debuted as a Broadway director, but “The Lovers” closed after just four days.
As a boy, Penn had little success learning the watchmaker’s trade from his father, who died without having seen any of his son’s films.
“He went to his grave despairing I would never find my way in the world,” the director said, “and the movies rescued me.”
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