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Joseph Sargent, 1925-2014

While many people, including myself, mourned the loss of iconic Brit Joe Cocker yesterday, who died of cancer at age 70, it was the passing of another Joe that shook me up even more.

Emmy-winning film and TV director Joseph Sargent passed away in his Malibu home on Monday, from the lung disease COPD, at age 89. Even though Sargent’s career was not widely heralded, it was certainly prolific. Born Giuseppe Danielle Sorgente in Jersey City, New Jersey, Sargent first got into the film industry as an actor, appearing in several films and TV shows. (He had an uncredited role in "From Here to Eternity" as a soldier.)

Sargent switched over to TV in the late ’50s and ‘60s, helming episodes of "Star Trek," "Lassie," "Gunsmoke" and "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," among others. While episodes of "U.N.C.L.E." were later spun off into the theatrical films "One Spy Too Many" and "The Guy in the Green Hat," his first official shot as a film director was when he helmed the 1968, post-WWII drama "The Hell with Heroes," starring Rod Taylor and Claudia Cardinale.

As the ‘60s went into the ‘70s, Sargent became very in-demand in both movies and television. He was still directing TV shows (he shot the "Kojak" pilot, for which he won an Emmy), as well as TV movies. But he also found time to do theatrical projects like "Buck and the Preacher," a Western starring Sidney Poitier (who took over directing duties when Sargent became dissatisfied with the film’s point of view) and Harry Belafonte, and "The Man," a rather prophetic, Rod Serling-scripted drama where James Earl Jones plays a U.S. senator who becomes the first black president.

The ‘70s was also when he directed his two most memorable films. First, there’s "White Lightning," the rowdy, Southern-fried actioner which had Burt Reynolds playing Gator McKlusky, a smart-ass ex-con who teams up with Feds to break up a moonshine ring and bring down the sinister sheriff (Ned Beatty) who killed his brother. Originally a project that was supposed to be Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut, Sargent took over the reins and made it a hicksploitation favorite that longtime fan Quentin Tarantino can’t stop lifting the Charles Bernstein score from for his movies.

Tarantino was also a fan of Sargent’s next theatrical picture, "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three." After all, this story of mysterious men (who only refer to themselves by colors) who hijack a New York City subway train is an obvious influence on Tarantino and his first feature, "Reservoir Dogs." As a fan of the film myself, "Pelham" is Sargent’s most polished, on-screen work: a tense, urban action-thriller that also doubles as a cynical, satirical take on ‘70s-era New York. And how can you not love Walter Matthau as the cranky NYC Transit Authority cop who reluctantly takes on the task of taking these guys down? Even though the movie was remade twice – first as a 1998 TV movie, then a 2009 flick directed by Tony Scott and starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta – the original is still a blast.

Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Sargent continued to bounce back-and-forth between directing movies and television. Often, his TV work outshined the stuff he did for the big screen. (When I was a kid, I remember catching his 1975 TV flick "The Night That Panicked America," which dramatized Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, and was floored by how riveting and well-made it was.)  

In 1987, Sargent became responsible for putting the final nail in the coffin of the "Jaws" franchise when he directed "Jaws: The Revenge," the third and most critically reviled (Roger Ebert gave the film zero stars) sequel in the series. Sargent later admitted the inanity of the movie’s premise: a killer shark gets revenge on the family of the man who killed one of its fellow shark buddies. (Sargent claimed the sharks were actually lovers.) However, everybody, including stars Lorraine Gary and Michael Caine, was on-board the blatantly ridiculous script. Not to mention that Sargent was practically getting a free vacation out of it, shooting in both Martha’s Vineyard and the Bahamas. As Sargent told the How Did This Get Made? podcast last year, “That’s how you get seduced into having blindness substitute for professional wisdom.”

"Revenge" would become the last theatrical film Sargent would direct, as he would spend the next couple of decades concentrating on films for both broadcast and cable television. Sargent certainly had a nice run directing films for HBO. Virtually reminding himself of the films he made early in his career, Sargent made a lot of acclaimed, fact-based films, such as "Miss Evers’ Boys" and "Something the Lord Made," that mostly dealt with African-American characters and storylines. Sargent was nominated for 9 Emmys for his directing work, winning four of them. He’s also won several Directors Guild of America awards.

While Sargent finished his final TV film, "Sweet Nothing in My Ear," in 2008, eventually retiring from the directing game altogether, he did keep busy in his later years. He was the Senior Filmmaker-in-Residence for the Directing program at the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles. He was also on the advisory board for the Deaf West Theatre, a Hollywood-based theater company that presents productions in English and sign language, along with his second wife Carolyn. (His first wife, Mary Carver, who died last year, was best known as the mom from "Simon & Simon.")

Sargent leaves behind a wife, two children (one of them, Lia, is a well-known voice actress for anime and video games) and a very long, impressive body of work. Once again, Joseph Sargent may not be a recognizable Joe, but he was far from an average one.  

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