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John Frankenheimer: A master craftsman

To understand the special gift of John Frankenheimer, it is better to start with his stories instead of his movies. Yes, he made some of the most distinctive films of his time (and began and ended as one of the most gifted directors of drama on television) but the films were mostly serious, and Frankenheimer was a very funny man.

He had one story he loved to tell, about the earliest days of live drama on TV. He broke into the medium at the age of 24, directing great actors twice or three times his age in a medium where, for better or worse, whatever was happening was what the viewers saw. Sets were changed while actors moved between them, sometimes but not always during commercial breaks.

He remembered a show where an outdoor scene was going to be shot on a very simple set--just a street lamp and a street sign and a wall--but fog would cover everything, and make it look like a city. "When the scene began," Frankenheimer said, "there was no fog. Where was the man with the fog machine? You could see the street lamp and the sign, but you could also clearly see in the background that the actors were standing in a TV studio.

"What did we do? What we always had to do on live TV. We just kept shooting. The scene ended, and we cut to an interior scene on the next set. Now that the actors were indoors, the fog machine finally started to work, filling the room with smoke."

He roared with laughter remembering that story, and had countless more. He was one of the youngest directors to come up through live TV drama, a medium that also birthed Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet. TV took itself more seriously in those days, and shows like "Playhouse 90" presented high-quality work week after week. Frankenheimer directed some 152 TV plays in six years, including the famous original version of "Days of Wine and Roses," with Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie.

The reason you wanted to hear his stories, as well as watch his movies, is because you were witness to the great joy he took in making movies, He started young, worked fast, had good luck and high energy, and loved his craft. And that is the sensibility you find reflected in his films.

Frankenheimer's big screen career took off in the early 1960s with an extraordinary series of successes, notably "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962), with Burt Lancaster in an unexpected role; "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), a classic thriller about brainwashing and assassination' "Seven Days in May" (1964), about the risk of a government coup; "The Train" (1964), about the Nazi's attempts to loot French art treasures; and "Seconds" (1966), with Rock Hudson in an intriguing story about changing identities.

Frankenheimer had a great enthusiasm for cars and racing, reflected in the big-screen epic "Grand Prix" (1966). Indeed, one time when I visited him at his home in the Malibu Colony, he led me solemnly into a room whose walls were lined with glass-fronted display cases filled with little model cars, mostly Ferraris. He showed me how the doors opened and closed, the hoods came up, the wheels turned, and how details like a gas-cap mounting distinguished one model from another. He had assembled and painted the cars himself, he said; watching his face, as the light bounced out from the display cases, I saw not a hobbyist but a dreamer for whom these perfect little cars represented an ideal world.

Frankenheimer's own world, which began in such sunshine, darkened from the later 1960s until 1980. He started drinking heavily, moved to Paris, took cooking classes ("for many people, being a chef and bring a drunk amount to the same thing"), and had a series of films that didn't work. He stopped drinking, "one day at a time," in 1980: "It was either that or die."

During this period he did direct one masterpiece, ironically about drinking: It was a film of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" (1973) with great performances by Lee Martin and Robert Ryan. Made for the short-lived American Film Theater subscription series, it disappeared from circulation, but recently the heirs of producer Eli Landau expressed hope that all the AFT films may be restored.

After he stopped drinking, Frankenheimer's career picked up again, notably with the knife-edged, weirdly funny "52 Pick-Up" (1986), one of the best of all the films of Elmore Leonard stories. "Year of the Gun" (1991) was a superior thriller starring Andrew McCarthy and Sharon Stone, in a key early role.

He made two other films in the 1990s ("Ronin," 1998, with its astonishing Paris chase scene, and "Reindeer Games" in 2000), but he was at the top of his form in original television drama, the genre where he began. "George Wallace" (1997) starred Gary Sinese in an extraordinary portrait of the fall and repentance of the Alabama governor, and the well-reviewed "Path to War," about Lyndon Johnson's escalation of the war in Vietnam, premiered in May. In recent years, he ruled made-for-cable films, winning four consecutive Emmys for his direction.

Although he never blamed his drinking on it, his personal life took a sad blow in 1968 with the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Frankenheimer was a close friend and media advisor to Kennedy, and RFK was staying at the director's house when he fought and won the crucial California primary. Frankenheimer drove Kennedy to the Ambassador Hotel for a victory speech which was followed by the assassination.

Ironically, it was the 1963 assassination of John F.Kennedy that prompted Frank Sinatra, the producer of "The Manchurian Candidate," to withdraw that film from release for many years, even though it contained perhaps Sinatra's best performance. It was re-released in 1988, as powerful as ever and, sadly, even more timely.

News of Frankenheimer's death on Saturday, at 72, came as a shock to those who remembered the tall, dynamic man, who seemed in vigorous health. Complications after back surgery led to a stroke. In a career that graced the second half of the 20th century, he had his ups and downs, but the ups were glorious, and his joy in his craft was evident to anyone who met him.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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