If you don’t, as I don’t, pay much attention to movie credits, the Saturday death of Sidney Lumet comes in two stages: You’re sad, then shocked. Sad, because you have fond memories of one of his movies, maybe 12 Angry Men, or Network—and then shocked, because you read the list of all the other incredible movies (Serpico, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Murder on the Orient Express) you loved, and forgot were his. The movies themselves, however, are haunting and unforgettable.
Lumet, born in 1924, got his start at age 4 when he first acted on stage with his father at the Yiddish Art Theater. Both his parent’s were Yiddish actors, but his family life was tough—his father was abusive and rarely worked.
“The Yiddish theater was well past its great days.” Lumet explained, “He was a very talented actor, but he had an accent — a heavy accent, Polish — so he never could work on Broadway. And eating was a problem for a long time, until I began working steadily on Broadway.”
After leaving the Yiddish stage, he made it on Broadway. His second role on Broadway was The Eternal Road, a musical Jewish history by Kurt Weill and directed by Max Reinhardt. He described it, in a must watch New York Times video, as “really very important to me creatively. It taught me the joy of work.”
His work’s deep humanism, and his talent for coaxing great performances from actors, gave him enormous flexibility of subject-matter. His films could take place entirely in a cramped jury room, or deal with world wide nuclear war. His Pawnbroker was one of the earliest American films to deal with the Holocaust. He also had some flops—The Wiz being the most infamous,—and was repeatedly nominated for, and then denied Oscars, until he received one for lifetime achievement in 2005.
In a 2008 interview with Rolling Stone, Lumet looked back at his 1973 masterpiece Serpico and said “[Al Pacino’s] Frank Serpico is a New York cop protesting cop corruption. Protesting is what mattered to him. That got to me. I was brought up Orthodox. The Jewish ethic is stern, moralistic. I thought like that very early.”
“Time to teach” in The Pawnbroker (1964)
Sidney Lumet, Director of ‘Serpico,’ Dies at 86 [NYT]
The Last Word: Sidney Lumet [NYT]
The King of New York: Rolling Stone’s 2008 Feature on Sidney Lumet [Rolling Stone]
Legendary Director Sidney Lumet Dies at 86 [The Wrap]