Scott's World: Frankenheimer's legacy

By VERNON SCOTT, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   July 8, 2002 at 6:04 PM
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HOLLYWOOD, July 8 (UPI) -- John Frankenheimer's life ended July 6, but his legacy lives on: a career that spanned TV's early live drama, movies and cable television.

Frankenheimer, a rangy, handsome man with broad shoulders and commanding demeanor was the boss on all his sets, a dominant factor behind the camera respected by his actors.

An undergraduate actor at Williams College, Frankenheimer understood actors' psyches and insecurities and was respected by his stars. He made a pussycat of the tempestuous, mean-spirited Frank Sinatra, who gave the performance is life in Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate."

He made a pal of Burt Lancaster, a notoriously difficult man on the set, who made four of his best movies for Frankenheimer.

Perhaps his most significant directorial achievement was maintaining peace between two of Hollywood's most imperious stars, Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, in "Seven Days in May" (1964).

It took all the diplomacy at Frankenheimer's command to keep those two icons from doing one another physical harm as they fought for supremacy on the screen.

He had even more trouble in later years with Val Kilmer, a recalcitrant, stubborn performer, that left both men bitter at the end of their association in the making of "The Island of Dr. Moreau" (1996).

In a rare outburst, Frankenheimer said of the experience, "I will never work with Val Kilmer again. There isn't enough money in the world."

It is ironic Hollywood traditionally has pampered its stars by paying them enormous amounts of money to cavort on screen while their nominal superiors on the set -- directors -- earn considerably less to run the show.

How can any director take issue with, say, Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts, in decisions involving personal preferences of camera angle or even dialogue if the $20 million star defies the $1 million director?

Almost inevitably it is the star who fills theaters, not the director, but there are occasional exceptions; i.e. Steven Spielberg.

Like many directors past and present, Frankenheimer was motivated by the work itself, bent on giving birth to a memorable work of art, not simply for big bucks.

Stars can survive economic disasters more readily than directors who, along with writers, take the brunt of critical abuse when a movie goes wrong.

Frankenheimer had his share of bombs: "Prophecy," "The Challenge," "The Holcroft Covenant" and "52 Pick-Up" but even these bore the stamp of individuality and the director's dedication to quality filmmaking.

In addition to his skill at working expertly with actors of all sorts and temperaments, Frankenheimer was noted for the drum-beat pace and energy of his movies, bringing the rhythms and urgency of live TV drama to the big screen.

Each film reflected the director's personal energy and dynamic acuity. He brought these characteristics to movie sets directly from his own personal lifestyle, projecting his dynamism, endowing his actors with the same compelling verve.

Even relaxing over a drink or dinner, Frankenheimer radiated kinetic energy, charging the atmosphere with excitement and challenge.

During interviews this unusual, charming man often left the media exhausted by his very presence, often filled with creative tension.

Frankenheimer may never be classified among the immortal filmmakers in the Pantheon of greatness: Ford, Hitchcock, Wyler, Wilder, Capra, Fleming, Mankiwicz, Stevens, Zinnemann, Wise and Spielberg.

His body of work is not as extensive as that group of men, but he did direct distinctive, memorable films, especially for television.

In addition to his landmark "The Manchurian Candidate," Frankenheimer's movies included "Birdman of Alcatraz," "Seven Days in May," "The Young Savages," "Black Sunday," "Grand Prix" and "All Fall Down."

Among his classic TV dramas: "The Rainmaker," "Andersonville," "The Burning Season," "Against the Wall" and 152 live TV dramas from 1954-60 that rank with the best the tube has ever broadcast, many for the pioneering "Playhouse 90."

Like an actor, perhaps, Frankenheimer was somewhat larger than life, a man who dominated a room by entering it. He was altogether open and friendly, warm and enthusiastic, more than willing to enter debate on any subject from politics to pictures.

An ardent liberal Democrat, Frankenheimer, a native of New York City, was an advocate of John F. Kennedy and a friend of Robert Kennedy. He worked for the latter's presidential candidacy before RFK was assassinated.

The night Senator Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles in 1968, he had been driven to the Ambassador Hotel by Frankenheimer.

In his later years Frankenheimer returned to television to direct dramatic films for cable TV and to entertain friends at his Malibu Beach home.

He seldom attended Hollywood's industry parties and such events as the Academy Awards, electing to remain among his friends and playing tennis almost every day late in life.

He died of a massive stroke at age 72, having contributed significantly to movie history.

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