Lumet also was a deeply moral filmmaker, who often made films crackling with social justice. His first feature film, 1957’s “12 Angry Men,” used the plodding reason of Juror no. 8, played by Henry Fonda, to overturn the prejudices and assumptions of his follow jurors. His 1964 film “The Pawnbroker” was one of the early U.S. dramas about the Holocaust. His “Fail-Safe,” also from 1964, was a frightening warning on nuclear bombs.
Lumet remained very active into his 80s, saying he wasn’t geared for retirement and couldn’t imagine giving up the life of making movies.
His last film was 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” in his beloved genre, melodrama.
“He was a true master who loved directing and working with actors like no other,” said Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who starred in it. “He was and is valuable on so many levels the thought itself overwhelms. I adored him. God, we’re going to miss him.”
The director was born June 25, 1924, in Philadelphia to a pair of Yiddish stage performers, and he began his show business career as a child actor, appearing on radio at age 4.
He made his Broadway debut in 1934 with a small role in Sidney Kingsley’s acclaimed “Dead End,” and he twice played Jesus, in Max Reinhardt’s production of “The Eternal Road” and Maxwell Anderson’s “Journey to Jerusalem.”
After serving as a radar repairman in India and Burma during World War II, Lumet returned to New York and formed an acting company. In 1950, Yul Brynner, a friend and a director at CBS-TV, invited him to join the network as an assistant director. Soon he rose to director, working on 150 episodes of the “Danger” thriller and other series.
The advent of live TV dramas boosted Lumet’s reputation. He directed the historical re-enactment program “You Are There,” hosted by Walter Cronkite. Like Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann and other directors of television drama’s Golden Age, he transitioned to feature filmmaking.
Later, when Lumet directed the 1976 TV news satire “Network,” penned by Paddy Chayefsky, he would winkingly insist the dark tragicomedy wasn’t an exaggeration of the TV business but mere “reportage.” The film proved to be Lumet’s most memorable and created an enduring catch phrase. The crazed newscaster Howard Beale _ “the first known instance of a man who was killed because of lousy ratings” _ exhorts people in his audience to raise their windows and shout: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
Beale is ultimately assassinated by his network bosses (Dunaway, Robert Duvall) on live television. Lumet called such a scene _ the live broadcast of a murder _ “the only part of `Network’ that hasn’t happened yet, and that’s on its way.”
The film was nominated for 10 Academy awards and won four.
Lumet immediately established himself as an A-list director with “12 Angry Men,” which took an early and powerful look at racial prejudice as it depicted 12 jurors trying to reach a verdict in a trial involving a young Hispanic man wrongly accused of murder. It garnered him his first Academy Award nomination.
His other nominations were for directing “Network,” “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) and “The Verdict” and for his screenplay adaptation for 1981’s “Prince of the City.”
“I’m also not a competitive man, but on two occasions I got so pissed off about what beat us,” he later said. “With ‘Network,’ we were beaten out by ‘Rocky,’ for Christ’s sake.”
That year, the field also included “Taxi Driver” and “All the President’s Men.”