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Sidney Lumet (pronounced [luˈmɛt], loo-MET; born June 25, 1924) is an American film director, with over 50 films to his name, including 12 Angry Men (1957), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976) and The Verdict (1982), all of which, except for Serpico (1973), earned him Academy Award nominations for Best Director.

According to The Encyclopedia of Hollywood, Lumet is one of the most prolific directors of the modern era making more than one movie per year on average since his directorial debut in 1957. He is especially noted for his ability to draw major actors to his projects. “Because of his visual economy, strong direction of actors, vigorous storytelling and use of the camera to accent themes,” states Turner Classic Movies. “Lumet produced a body of work that could only be defined as extraordinary.”[1]

One of his steady themes during his career has been the “fragility of justice and the police and their corruption,” according to Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film. He can deliver “powerhouse performances from lead actors,” and fine work from character actors and is today one of the foremost figures of New York moviemaking. His sensitivity to actors and to the rhythms of the city have made him “America’s longest-lived descendant of the 1950s Neorealist tradition and its urgent commitment to ethical responsibility.”

Lumet began as an off-Broadway director, then became a highly efficient TV director. His first movie was typical of his best work: a well-acted, tightly written, deeply considered “problem picture,” 12 Angry Men (1957). Since then, Lumet has divided his energies among other idealistic problem pictures along with literate adaptations of plays and novels, big stylish pictures, and New York-based black comedies. As a result of directing 12 Angry Men, he is also responsible for leading the first wave of directors who made a successful transition from TV to movies. For being one of the most reliable and dependable directors of the last half-century, in 2005 he received an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement for his “brilliant services to screenwriters, performers, and the art of the motion picture.”


Early years

Lumet was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on June 25, 1924. He studied theater acting at the Professional Children’s School of New York and Columbia University.

His parents were Baruch Lumet and Eugenia Wermus, both veteran players of the Yiddish stage. His father was an actor, director, producer and writer, while his mother was a dancer. His mother died when he was still a child. Lumet made his professional debut on radio at age four and stage debut at the Yiddish Art Theatre at five. As a child he also appeared in many Broadway plays, including Dead end and Kurt Weill’s The Eternal Road. In 1935 at age 11, Lumet appeared in a Henry Lynn short film, Papirossen co-produced by radio star Herman Yablokoff. The film was shown in a theatrical play with the same title, based on a hit song, Papirosn. The play and short film appeared in the Bronx McKinley Square Theatre. [2] In 1939 he made his only feature-length film appearance, at age 15, in One Third of a Nation. [3][4] In 1939, World War II interrupted his early acting career, and he spent three years with the U.S. army.

After returning from World War II service (1942–46) as a radar repairman stationed in India and Burma, he became involved with the Actor’s Studio, and then formed his own theater workshop. He organized an off-Broadway group and became its director, and continued directing in Summer stock theatre, while teaching acting at the High School of Professional Arts. [3]

Personal life

His first wife was actress Rita Gam (1949-54); his second, was socialite Gloria Vanderbilt (1956-63); his third, Gail Jones (1963-78), who was the daughter of singer-actress Lena Horne; and his fourth marriage was to Mary Gimbel (1980 – present). His marriage to Gail Jones produced two daughters, Amy, who was married briefly (1990-1993) to P.J. O’Rourke, and actress/screenwriter Jenny who had a leading role in his film Q & A. She also wrote the screenplay for the 2008 film Rachel Getting Married.[3][5]

Career in directing

Early career

Lumet began his career as a director with Off-Broadway productions and then evolved into a highly respected TV director. After gaining valuable experience working Off-Broadway and in summer stock, he began to direct in the new medium of television in 1950, after working as an assistant to friend and then-directory Yul Brynner. He soon developed a “lightning quick” method for shooting due to the high turnover required by television. As a result, while working for CBS he directed hundreds of episodes of “Danger” (1950-55), “I Remember Mama” (1948-1957), and “You Are There” (1953-57), a weekly series which co-starred Walter Cronkite in one of his earliest leading roles. He chose Cronkite for the role of anchorman “because the premise of the show was so silly, was so outrageous, that we needed somebody with the most American, homespun, warm ease about him,” Lumet said.[6]

He also directed original plays for “Playhouse 90,” “Kraft Television Theatre” and “Studio One,” filming around 200 episodes, which established him as “one of the most prolific and respected directors in the business,” according to TCM. His abilities to work quickly while shooting carried over to his film career.[1] Because the quality of many of the television dramas was so impressive, several of them were later adapted as motion pictures.

Scene from 12 Angry Men with Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb (1957)

His first movie was typical of his best work: “a well-acted, tightly written, deeply considered ‘problem picture,’ 12 Angry Men (1957).”[7] Writes film historian Stephen Bowles, “Twelve Angry Men was an auspicious beginning for Lumet. It was a critical and commercial success and established Lumet as a director skilled at adapting theatrical properties to motion pictures. Fully half of Lumet’s complement of films have originated in the theater.

As a result of directing Twelve Angry Men, “he led the first wave of directors who made a successful transition from TV to movies.” [8] He then divided his energies among other idealistic problem pictures, adaptations of plays and novels, big stylish pictures, tense melodramas, and New York-based black comedies dealing with society and American culture. A controversial TV show he directed in 1960 gained him notoriety: The Sacco-Vanzetti Story on NBC; According to the NY Times, “the drama drew flack from the state of Massachusetts (where Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were tried and executed) because it was thought to postulate that the condemned murderers were, in fact, wholly innocent. But the brouhaha actually did Lumet more good than harm, sending several prestigious film assignments his way.[9]

He soon began by adapting classic plays for both film and television. In 1959, he directed Marlon Brando and Joanne Woodward in The Fugitive Kind, based on the Tennessee Williams play “Orpheus Descending.” He later directed a live television version of Eugene O’Neill‘s The Iceman Cometh, which was followed by his 1962 film, A View From the Bridge, another psychological drama play written by Arthur Miller. This was followed by another Eugene O’Neill play turned to cinema, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, in 1962, with Katharine Hepburn gaining an Oscar nomination for her role. It was also voted one of the year’s “Ten Best Films” by the New York Times.

Directing style and subjects

Lumet believes that movies are an art, and this was where his interest in the medium and his ambitions for it began, and once stated that “The amount of attention paid to movies is directly related to pictures of quality.”[10] Because he started his career as an actor, he has become known as an “actor’s director,” and he has worked with the best of them over the years, a roster probably unequaled by any other director.”[11] According to film historians Gerald Mast and Bruce Kawin, Lumet’s “sensitivity to actors and to the rhythms of the city have made him America’s longest-lived descendant of the 1950s Neorealist tradition and its urgent commitment to ethical responsibility.”[7] They cite his early film The Hill (1965) as “one of the most politically and morally radical films of the 1960s.”

They add that beneath the social conflicts of Lumet’s films lies the “conviction that love and reason will eventually prevail in human affairs,” and that “law and justice will eventually be served – or not.” [7] His debut film, Twelve Angry Men, was an acclaimed picture in its day: it was a model for liberal reason and fellowship in the Eisenhower era; or maybe it was an alarming example of how easily any jury could be swayed.” [12] The film and its director were nominated for Academy Awards. Lumet won the Director’s Guild Award and the film was widely praised by critics. [3]

The Encyclopedia of World Biography states that his films often feature actors who studied “Method acting“, “characterized by an earthy, introspective style. A leading example of such “Method” actors would be Al Pacino, who, early in his career, studied under Method acting guru Lee Strasberg. Lumet also prefers the appearance of spontaneity in both his actors and settings, an “improvisational look achieved by shooting much of his work on location.”[13]

Rehearsal and preparation

Lumet is a strong believer in rehearsal, and feels that if you rehearse correctly the actor won’t lose spontaneity. According to acting author Ian Bernard, he feels that it gives actors the “entire arc of the role,” which gives them the freedom to find that “magical accident.”[14] Director Peter Bogdanovich asked him whether he rehearses extensively before shooting, and Lumet replied “I like to rehearse a minimum of two weeks before I shoot.”[11]

Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine in Deathtrap (1982)

He was able to prepare and execute a production in rapid order, allowing him to consistently stay within a modest budget. When filming Prince of the City, for example, although there were over 130 speaking roles and 135 different locations, he was able to coordinate the entire shoot in fifty-two days. As a result, write historians Charles Harpole and Thomas Schatz, performers were eager to work with him as they considered him to be an “outstanding director of actors.” And they note that “whereas many directors disliked rehearsals or advising actors on how to build their character, Lumet excelled at both.” [10] As a result, he was able to give his performers a cinematic showcase for their abilities and help them deepen their acting contribution.

Joanna Rapf, writing about the filming of The Verdict, states that Lumet gives a lot of personal attention to his actors, “listening to them, touching them.” She describes how Lumet and star Paul Newman sat on a bench secluded from the main set, where Newman had taken his shoes off, in order to privately discuss an important scene about to be shot. . . . The actors walk through their scenes before the camera rolls. Lumet likes to shoot a scene in one take, two at the most. “I call him Speedy Gonzales, the only man I know who’ll double-park in front of a whorehouse,” kids Paul Newman privately. “He’s arrogant about not shooting more than he has to. He doesn’t give himself any protection. I know I would,” Newman adds.[11]

Actor Christopher Reeve, who co-starred in Deathtrap, said that Lumet “knows how to talk technical language—if you want to work that way—he knows how to talk Method, he knows how to improvise, and he does it all equally well.”[11]

 Character development

According to biographer Joanna Rapf, Lumet has always been an “independent director,” and liked to make films about “men who summon courage to challenge the system, about the little guy against the system.”[11]:Intro This also includes the women characters in his films, such as Garbo Talks. “Anne Bancroft embodies the kind of character to whom Lumet is attracted: a committed activist for all kinds of causes, who stands up for the rights of the oppressed, who is lively, outspoken, courageous, who refuses to conform for the sake of convenience, and whose understanding of life allows her to die with dignity…. Garbo Talks in many ways is a valentine to New York.”[11]

Throughout a 2006 interview, he reiterated that “he is fascinated by the human cost involved in following passions and commitments, and the cost those passions and commitments inflict on others.” This theme is at the “core” of most of his movies, notes Rapf, “including his stories of corruption in the New York police department and family dramas such as in Daniel.


According to film historian Stephen Bowles, he has proven himself “most comfortable and effective as a director of serious psychodramas and was most vulnerable when attempting light entertainments. His Academy Award nominations, for example, have all been for character studies of men in crisis, from his first film, Twelve Angry Men, to The Verdict. Lumet was, literally, a child of the drama.” He notes that “nearly all the characters in Lumet’s gallery are driven by obsessions or passions that range from the pursuit of justice, honesty, and truth to the clutches of jealousy, memory, or guilt. It is not so much the object of their fixations but the obsessive condition itself that intrigues Lumet.”[15]

Therefore, Bowles adds, “Lumet’s protagonists tend to be isolated, unexceptional men who oppose a group or institution. Whether the protagonist is a member of a jury or party to a bungled robbery, he follows his instincts and intuition in an effort to find solutions. Lumet’s most important criterion is not whether the actions of these men are right or wrong but whether the actions are genuine. If these actions are justified by the individual’s conscience, this gives his heroes uncommon strength and courage to endure the pressures, abuses, and injustices of others. Frank Serpico, for example, is the quintessential Lumet hero in his defiance of peer group authority and the assertion of his own code of moral values.”[15] Lumet in his autobiography described the film Serpico as “a portrait of a real rebel with a cause.”[16]

Issues of social justice

According to Turner Classic Movies, “it was the social realism which permeated his greatest work that truly defined Lumet — the themes of youthful idealism beaten down by corruption and the hopelessness of inept social institutions allowed him to produce several trenchant and potent films that no other director could have made.”[1] Serpico (1973), was the first of four “seminal” films he made in the 1970s that marked him as “one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation.” It was the story of power and betrayal in the New York City police force, and was coupled with the “idea that innocence is lost in the face of corruption.” The movie became a blueprint that Lumet would use to portray the inner world of cops, lawyers and street criminals, with only an “idealistic lone wolf battling seemingly impossible odds.”[1]

“As a child of the Depression,” writes Joanna Rapf, “growing up poor in New York City with poverty and corruption all around him, Lumet became concerned with the importance of justice to a democracy. He says he likes questioning things, people, institutions, what is considered by society as ‘right’ and ‘wrong.'” [11] He admits, however, that he does not believe that art itself has the power to change anything. “There is, as he says, a lot of ‘shit’ to deal with in the entertainment industry, but the secret of good work is to maintain your honesty and your passion.”[11]

Film historian David Thomson writes “He has steady themes: the fragility of justice, and the police and their corruption.”. He adds, “Lumet quickly became esteemed…[and he] got a habit for big issues – Fail-Safe, The Pawnbroker, The Hill, – and seemed torn between dullness and pathos. … Network …was the closest he had come to a successful comedy. He was that rarity of the 1970s, a director happy to serve his material—yet seemingly not touched or changed by it.”[12]

Lumet, discussing one of his primary film subjects, police corruption, described his feelings for film magazine, Cinema Nation:

“I have just finished a movie called Prince of the City. It’s a long, complex film and one of the most difficult and satisfying movies I’ve ever made. It’s about a cop informing on other cops. . . [It’s] not only about informing, however. It is also about cops and the complexity of their lives. I’ve known a lot of cops, most of whom join the force with a good deal of idealism. They wind up with the highest suicide and alcoholism rates of any profession.” [16]

Mandy Patinkin and Ed Asner on the set of “Daniel,” 1982.

New York settings

Lumet always prefers to work in New York, notes Lumet biographer Joanna Rapf, “shunning the dominance of Hollywood. By refusing to “go Hollywood,” he soon became strongly identified with New York and filmed the majority of his films there. Like Woody Allen, he defines himself as a New Yorker. “I always like being in Woody Allen’s world,” he said. He claims “the diversity of the City, its many ethnic neighborhoods, its art and its crime, its sophistication and its corruption, its beauty and its ugliness, all feed into what inspires him.” [11] He feels that in order to create it’s important to confront reality on a daily basis. For Lumet, “New York is filled with reality; Hollywood is a fantasyland.”[11]

He used New York time and again as the backdrop—if not the symbol—of his “preoccupation with America’s decline,” according to film historians Scott and Barbara Siegel.[8] In discussing the significance of urban settings to Lumet, Bowles notes, “Within this context, Lumet is consistently attracted to situations in which crime provides the occasion for a group of characters to come together. Typically these characters are caught in a vortex of events they can neither understand nor control but which they must work to resolve.”[15]

In a 2007 interview with New York Magazine, he was asked, “Almost all of your films—from The Pawnbroker to your latest—have an intense level of that famous New York grit. Is being streetwise really such a difference between us and Hollywood?” Lumet replied: “In L.A., there’s no streets! No sense of a neighborhood! They talk about us not knowing who lives in the same apartment complex as us—bullshit! I know who lives in my building. In L.A., how much can you really find out about anybody else? … Really, it’s just about human contact. It seems to me that our greatest problems today are coming out of the increasing isolation of people, everywhere.”[17]

Directing techniques

Lumet has always preferred naturalism and/or realism, according to Joanna Rapf. He does not like the “decorator’s look”; rarely does he want “the camera to call attention to itself; the editing must be unobtrusive.” His cinematographer, Ron Fortunato, said “Sidney flips if he sees a look that’s too artsy.”[11]

Partly because he has been willing and able to take on so many significant social issues and problems, “he can deliver powerhouse performances from lead actors, and fine work from character actors,” writes film historian Thomson. He is “one of the stalwart figures of New York moviemaking. He abides by good scripts, when he gets them.”[12]

According to Katz’s Film Encyclopedia, “Although critical evaluation of Lumet’s work wavered widely from film to film, on the whole the director’s body of work has been held in high esteem. Critical opinion has generally viewed him as a sensitive and intelligent director who possesses considerable good taste, the courage to experiment with a variety of techniques and styles, and an uncommon gift for handling actors.” [3]

In a quote from his book, Lumet emphasized the logistics of directing:

“Someone once asked me what making a movie was like. I said it was like making a mosaic. Each setup is like a tiny tile (a setup, the basic component of a film’s production, consists of one camera position and its associated lighting). You color it, shape it, polish it as best you can. You’ll do six or seven hundred of these, maybe a thousand. (There can easily be that many setups in a movie.) Then you literally paste them together and hope it’s what you set out to do.” [18]

In 1970, Lumet said, “If you’re a director, then you’ve got to direct…. I don’t believe that you should sit back and wait until circumstances are perfect before you and it’s all gorgeous and marvelous…. I never did a picture because I was hungry…. Every picture I did was an active, believable, passionate wish. Every picture I did I wanted to do…. I’m having a good time.”

Lumet, in a statement posted on IMDB, said, “If I don’t have a script I adore, I do one I like. If I don’t have one I like, I do one that has an actor I like or that presents some technical challenge.”

Vision of future films

In the same interview with NY Magazine, when asked what he foresaw as the next wave of filmmaking, he responded, “Well, we were shooting out in Astoria, and one day I was watching all these kids standing outside a school near the studio. It was just marvelous: Indian girls in saris, kids from Pakistan, Korea, kids from all over. So I think you’ll see more directors from these communities, telling their stories. You know, I started out making films about Jews and Italians and Irish because I didn’t know anything else.” [17]


According to film historian Bowles, Lumet has succeeded in becoming a leading drama filmmaker partly because “his most important criterion [when directing] is not whether the actions of his protagonists are right or wrong, but whether their actions are genuine.” And where those actions are “justified by the individual’s conscience, this gives his heroes uncommon strength and courage to endure the pressures, abuses, and injustices of others.” His films have thereby continually given us the “quintessential hero acting in defiance of peer group authority and asserting his own code of moral values.”[15]

Lumet’s published memoir about his life in film, Making Movies (1996), is “extremely lighthearted and infectious in its enthusiasm for the craft of moviemaking itself,” writes Bowles, “and is in marked contrast to the tone and style of most of his films. Perhaps Lumet’s signature as a director is his work with actors—and his exceptional ability to draw high-quality, sometimes extraordinary performances from even the most unexpected quarters”[15] Jake Coyle, Associated Press writer, agrees: “While Lumet has for years gone relatively underappreciated, actors have consistently turned in some of their most memorable performances under his stewardship. From Katharine Hepburn to Faye Dunaway, Henry Fonda to Paul Newman, Lumet was known as an actor’s director.” [19]

Academy of Motion Pictures President Frank Pierson said, “Lumet is one of the most important film directors in the history of American cinema, and his work has left an indelible mark on both audiences and the history of film itself.” [20] And James Verniere, of the Boston Herald wrote, “At a time when the American film industry is intent on seeing how low it can go, Sidney Lumet remains a master of the morally complex American drama.”[21]

Film author Joanna Rapf, completing her interviews with Lumet in 2006, wrote, “Still intensely energetic, youthful, and passionate about life, … [he seeks out] ‘real’ people, and ‘real’ situations, and the stories he can tell about them, ‘human, honest and occasionally illustrative of some major point about living.”[11]


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