William Friedkin, ‘The Exorcist’ & ‘The French Connection’ Director, Dies @ 87

August 7, 2023

(Image via Warner Bros.)

William Friedkin, director of The Boys in the Band, The French Connection and The Exorcist, died Monday, August 7, at 87.

Deadline reports he died of pneumonia and heart failure. The death was confirmed by Sherry Lansing, the ex-studio chief to whom he had been wed since 1991.

The Exorcist's star, Ellen Burstyn, remembered Friedkin as "an original," telling the outlet he was, "Smart, culture, fearless and wildly talented. On the set, he knew what he wanted, would go to any length to get it and was able to let it go if he saw something better happening. He was undoubtedly a genius.”

Fellow director Guillero del Toro remembered Friedkin with the tweet: "The world has lost one of the Gods of Cinema. Cinema has lost a true Scholar and I have lost a dear, loyal and true friend. William Friedkin has left us. We were blessed to have him."

Friedkin died just over a month ahead of the release of his final film, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (2023), starring Kiefer Sutherland, and just over two months before the release (October 13) of the first in a trilogy of new Exorcist films; Friedkin famously loathed all prior Exorcist sequels, but the new films — directed by David Gordon Green — will feature Burstyn.

Born August 29, 1935, in Chicago, Friedkin was a cinephile from his mid-20s on. He admired auteur works like Citizen Kane (1941) by Orson Welles and actually wound up directing Psycho's John Gavin for one of the last episodes of The Alfred Hitchock Hour, "Off Season" (1965).

His feature film-directing debut was what he called the "unwatchable" Sonny & Cher film Good Times (1967). Next, he directed The Birthday Party (1968) — a personal passion project — and the musical-comedy The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968).

Harold, the birthday boy (GIF via GIPHY)

I personally feel Friedkin began to really hit his stride with the film adaptation of Mart Crowley's groundbreaking gay play The Boys in the Band, a daring work from 1970 that displayed gay men as multi-layered and ultimately sympathetic.

In 1971, he directed the neo-noir thriller The French Connection, adapted from a best-selling book and starring Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle. The gritty film — a smash — contains one of the greatest car chases ever filmed, and is often cited as among the best movies of all time. It won five Oscars, including for Best Picture and Best Director.

With The Exorcist (1973), Friedkin made a horror film that was an astonishing culture-defining hit, one that was nominated for 10 Oscars.

Friedkin's Sorcerer (1977) — his personal favorite — and The Brink's Job (1978), and he endured picketing over his 1980 film Cruising, which gay activists argued painted the LGBTQ community in a negative light.

After a major heart attack in 1981, he resumed filmmaking, but never duplicated his early success, helming Deal of the Century (1983), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), Rampage (1987), The Guardian (1990), Blue Chips (1994), Jade (1995), Rules of Engagement (2000), The Hunted (2003), Bug (2007), Killer Joe (2011), and the upcoming The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (2023), starring Kiefer Sutherland.

Friedkin also directed a number of documentaries, episodes of TV, TV movies (notably the 1997 version of 12 Angry Men), and music videos.

Friedkin was married and divorced three times before he wed Lansing, to actress Jeanne Moreau, to actress Lesley-Anne Down, and to Emmy-winning TV anchor Kelly Lange.

Along with Lansing, Friedkin is survived by his son Cedric, from a relationship with dancer-choreographer Jennifer Nairn-Smith, and by his son Jack, from his marriage to Down.


1 Response

  1. I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of such an iconic filmmaker, William Friedkin. His contributions to cinema, especially with masterpieces like “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection,” will forever remain a testament to his incredible talent and skill. Friedkin’s storytelling was both riveting and thought-provoking, leaving an indelible mark on the industry. His legacy will continue to inspire generations of filmmakers to come. Rest in peace, Mr. Friedkin. You will be sorely missed.

    Gary Ford

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