William Friedkin, Oscar-winning director of The Exorcist and The French Connection, has died at the age of 87.
The film-maker died in Los Angeles, confirmed by Chapman University dean Stephen Galloway, a friend of his wife and former producer Sherry Lansing.
Friedkin was seen as one of the most daring and influential talents of his generation, winning an Oscar for best director for The French Connection in 1972. He was also nominated for The Exorcist in 1974. Both films were nominated for best picture, with The French Connection winning the Oscar.
Friedkin started his big screen career in 1965 with Good Times, a comedy starring Sonny and Cher. While the film received mostly negative reviews, Friedkin later said: “I’ve made better films than Good Times but I’ve never had so much fun.”
It was 1971’s crime thriller The French Connection that brought him his first real hit, a commercial and critical success, since viewed as one of the greatest films ever made. Friedkin has spoken about the studio’s lack of belief in the film and the surprise at its success. “It came out and immediately went through the roof like a rocket,” he said in 2021. “We don’t know why but sometimes that happens.”
The film remains an important influence on many of the directors to follow Friedkin. David Fincher, Steven Spielberg and Akira Kurosawa have all cited it as having an impact on their work.
It was followed up by another hit, an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s horror novel The Exorcist. It became a blockbuster success, making over $425m worldwide from a $12m budget. In a Guardian interview, Friedkin claims he was “fired about five times” during production yet a reportedly troubled set didn’t stop the film from being named the first horror movie to ever receive a best picture nomination at the Oscars.
Martin Scorsese named it one of the scariest films ever made. He claimed it to be “as utterly horrifying as it was the day it came out”.
It led to a franchise as well as a TV series (a legacy sequel also comes out this year). Friedkin confessed to never having watched anything that followed.
His next film, 1977’s action thriller Sorcerer, was initially seen as a critical and commercial disappointment yet has since been re-evaluated. The adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s novel The Wages of Fear has been cited as Friedkin’s favourite of his films. “I have no idea why it failed,” he said to the Guardian. “No seer has come to me with the reason. A lot of people expected from the title that it would be some sort of followup to The Exorcist, which it isn’t. It came out in cinemas the same week as Star Wars, I’ve heard that too. I think it wasn’t what people expected to see. And when that happens they get disappointed.”
His 1980 thriller Cruising, starring Al Pacino as a cop going undercover in New York’s gay S&M scene, led to controversy at the time with gay rights protestors unhappy with the portrayal. The production led to protests in the city and while the film was poorly received at the time – it was nominated for three Golden Raspberry awards – it was later given a reappreciation. “I never intended Cruising to be any kind of statement about gay life,” Friedkin said in 2017. “To me, it was an exotic background for a murder mystery that had never been seen in a mainstream film.”
Friedkin’s later films included Jade, Rules of Engagement, Bug and Killer Joe starring Matthew McConaughey. His most recent film was the 2017 documentary The Devil and Father Amorth.
His final work will premiere at this year’s Venice film festival, the legal thriller The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. The film stars Kiefer Sutherland and Jason Clarke and is based on Herman Wouk’s 1953 play.
Tributes have started to come in from figures in Hollywood. Actor Elijah Wood called him “a true cinematic master whose influence will continue to extend forever”.