John Frankenheimer

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John Frankenheimer
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John Michael Frankenheimer

(1930-02-19)February 19, 1930
DiedJuly 6, 2002(2002-07-06) (aged 72)
Alma mater Williams College
Occupation Film director
Years active1948–2002
Spouse(s)Joanne Frankenheimer (divorced)
Carolyn Miller (1954–62; divorced; 2 children)
Evans Evans (1963–2002; his death)

John Michael Frankenheimer (February 19, 1930 July 6, 2002) [1] was an American film and television director known for social dramas and action/suspense films. Among his credits were Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), The Train (1965), Seconds (1966), Grand Prix (1966), French Connection II (1975), Black Sunday (1977), and Ronin (1998).

<i>Birdman of Alcatraz</i> (film) 1962 film by John Frankenheimer

Birdman of Alcatraz is a 1962 American biographical drama film starring Burt Lancaster and directed by John Frankenheimer. It is a largely fictionalized version of the life of Robert Stroud, a federal prison inmate known as the "Birdman of Alcatraz" because of his life with birds. In spite of the title, much of the action is set at Leavenworth Prison, where Stroud was jailed with his birds. When moved to Alcatraz he was not allowed to keep any pets.

<i>The Manchurian Candidate</i> (1962 film) 1962 film by John Frankenheimer

The Manchurian Candidate is a 1962 American suspense thriller film about the Cold War and sleeper agents. It was directed and produced by John Frankenheimer. The screenplay was written by George Axelrod, and was based on the 1959 Richard Condon novel The Manchurian Candidate. The film's leading actors are Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Janet Leigh, with Angela Lansbury, Henry Silva, and James Gregory in supporting roles.

<i>Seven Days in May</i> 1964 political thriller film directed by John Frankenheimer

Seven Days in May is a 1964 American political thriller film about a military-political cabal's planned takeover of the United States government in reaction to the president's negotiation of a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. The picture was directed by John Frankenheimer; starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, and Ava Gardner; with the screenplay written by Rod Serling based on the novel of the same name by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, published in September 1962.


Frankenheimer won four Emmy Awards—three consecutive—in the 1990s for directing the television movies Against the Wall , The Burning Season , Andersonville , and George Wallace , the latter of which also received a Golden Globe Award for Best Miniseries or Television Film. He was considered one of the last remaining directors who insisted on having complete control over all elements of production, making his style unique in Hollywood.

<i>Against the Wall</i> (1994 film) 1994 television film directed by John Frankenheimer

Against the Wall is a 1994 American action historical drama television film directed by John Frankenheimer, written by Ron Hutchinson, and starring Samuel L. Jackson and Kyle MacLachlan. It aired on HBO on March 26, 1994. The film was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Jackson and won a Primetime Emmy Award for Frankenheimer.

<i>The Burning Season</i> (1994 film) 1994 film directed by John Frankenheimer

The Burning Season is a 1994 television movie directed by John Frankenheimer. The film chronicles Chico Mendes' fight to protect the rainforest. This was Raul Julia's last film released during his lifetime. The movie was based in part on the 1990 book of the same name by journalist Andrew Revkin.

<i>Andersonville</i> (film) 1996 film directed by John Frankenheimer

Andersonville is a 1996 American television film directed by John Frankenheimer about a group of Union soldiers during the American Civil War who are captured by the Confederates and sent to an infamous Confederate prison camp.

Frankenheimer's 30 feature films and over 50 plays for television were notable for their influence on contemporary thought. He became a pioneer of the "modern-day political thriller," having begun his career at the peak of the Cold War. [2]

Cold War Geopolitical tension after World War II between the Eastern and Western Bloc

The Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union with its satellite states, and the United States with its allies after World War II. A common historiography of the conflict begins between 1946, the year U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan's "Long Telegram" from Moscow cemented a U.S. foreign policy of containment of Soviet expansionism threatening strategically vital regions, and the Truman Doctrine of 1947, and ending between the Revolutions of 1989, which ended communism in Eastern Europe as well as in other areas, and the 1991 collapse of the USSR, when nations of the Soviet Union abolished communism and restored their independence. The term "cold" is used because there was no large-scale fighting directly between the two sides, but they each supported major regional conflicts known as proxy wars. The conflict split the temporary wartime alliance against Nazi Germany and its allies, leaving the USSR and the US as two superpowers with profound economic and political differences.

He was technically highly accomplished from his days in live television; many of his films were noted for creating "psychological dilemmas" for his male protagonists along with having a strong "sense of environment," [2] similar in style to films by director Sidney Lumet, for whom he had earlier worked as assistant director. He developed a "tremendous propensity for exploring political situations" which would ensnare his characters. [2]

Sidney Lumet American director, producer and screenwriter

Sidney Arthur Lumet was an American director, producer, and screenwriter with over 50 films to his credit. He was nominated five times for the Academy Award: four for Best Director for 12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), and The Verdict (1982) and one for Best Adapted Screenplay for Prince of the City (1981). He did not win an individual Academy Award, but he did receive an Academy Honorary Award and 14 of his films were nominated for various Oscars, such as Network, which was nominated for ten, winning four.

Movie critic Leonard Maltin writes that "in his time [1960s]... Frankenheimer worked with the top writers, producers and actors in a series of films that dealt with issues that were just on top of the momentthings that were facing us all." [3]

Leonard Maltin American film critic, writer, and historian

Leonard Michael Maltin is an American film critic and film historian, as well as an author of several mainstream books on cinema, focusing on nostalgic, celebratory narratives. Maltin created the Walt Disney Treasures, a series of compilations of Disney cartoons and episodes released to mark the centenary of the birth of Walt Disney.

Early life

Frankenheimer was born in Queens, New York City, the son of Helen Mary (née Sheedy) and Walter Martin Frankenheimer, a stockbroker. [3] [4] Frankenheimer once speculated he might be related to actress Ally Sheedy. [5] His father was of German Jewish descent, his mother was Irish Catholic, and Frankenheimer was raised in his mother's religion. [6] [7]

Queens Borough in New York City and county in New York, United States

Queens is the easternmost of the five boroughs of New York City. It is the largest borough geographically and is adjacent to the borough of Brooklyn at the southwestern end of Long Island. To its east is Nassau County. Queens also shares water borders with the boroughs of Manhattan and the Bronx. Coterminous with Queens County since 1899, the borough of Queens is the second largest in population, with an estimated 2,358,582 residents in 2017, approximately 48% of them foreign-born. Queens County also is the second most populous county in the U.S. state of New York, behind Brooklyn, which is coterminous with Kings County. Queens is the fourth most densely populated county among New York City's boroughs, as well as in the United States. If each of New York City's boroughs were an independent city, Queens would be the nation's fourth most populous, after Los Angeles, Chicago, and Brooklyn. Queens is the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world.

New York City Largest city in the United States

The City of New York, usually called either New York City (NYC) or simply New York (NY), is the most populous city in the United States. With an estimated 2018 population of 8,398,748 distributed over a land area of about 302.6 square miles (784 km2), New York is also the most densely populated major city in the United States. Located at the southern tip of the state of New York, the city is the center of the New York metropolitan area, the largest metropolitan area in the world by urban landmass and one of the world's most populous megacities, with an estimated 19,979,477 people in its 2018 Metropolitan Statistical Area and 22,679,948 residents in its Combined Statistical Area. A global power city, New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world, and exerts a significant impact upon commerce, entertainment, research, technology, education, politics, tourism, art, fashion, and sports. The city's fast pace has inspired the term New York minute. Home to the headquarters of the United Nations, New York is an important center for international diplomacy.

Ally Sheedy American actress

Alexandra Elizabeth "Ally" Sheedy is an American actress and author. Following her film debut in 1983's Bad Boys, she became known as one of the Brat Pack group of actors in the films The Breakfast Club (1985) and St. Elmo's Fire (1985). She also acted in WarGames (1983) and Short Circuit (1986). For her performance in Lisa Cholodenko's High Art (1998), Sheedy won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead.

He grew up in New York City and became interested in movies at an early age; he recalled going to the cinema every weekend. In 1947, he graduated from La Salle Military Academy in Oakdale, Long Island, New York. In 1951, he graduated from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he had studied English. He also developed an interest in acting as a career while in college but began thinking seriously about directing when he was in the Air Force. [2]

This led him to join a film squadron based in Burbank, California, where he shot his first documentary. He also began studying film theory by reading books about other famous directors, such as Sergei Eisenstein along with how-to books about the craft of film making. [2]


Frankenheimer began his directing career in live television at CBS. Throughout the 1950s he directed over 140 episodes of shows like Playhouse 90 , Climax! , and Danger , including The Comedian , written by Rod Serling and starring Mickey Rooney as a ragingly vicious television comedian.

Frankenheimer's first theatrical film was The Young Stranger (1957), starring James MacArthur as the rebellious teenage son of a powerful Hollywood movie producer. He directed the production, based on a Climax! episode, "Deal a Blow", which he directed when he was 26. Frankenheimer returned to television during the late 1950s, moving to film permanently in 1961 with The Young Savages , in which he worked for the first time with Burt Lancaster in a story of a young boy murdered by a New York gang. His departure from television is considered to signal the end of the Golden Age of Television. [8]

Roger Ebert considered Frankenheimer to have had a special gift as a filmmaker and to have been a "master craftsman". He stated that Frankenheimer made some of the "most distinctive films of his time" and that he was " one of the most gifted directors of drama on television". [9]

Birdman of Alcatraz

Production of Birdman of Alcatraz began under director Charles Crichton. [10] Burt Lancaster, who was producing, as well as starring, asked Frankenheimer to take over the film. As Frankenheimer describes in Charles Champlin's interview book, he advised Lancaster that the script was too long, but was told he had to shoot all that was written.

The first cut of the film was four-and-a-half hours long, the length Frankenheimer had predicted. Moreover, the film was constructed so that it could not be cut and still be coherent. Frankenheimer said the film would have to be rewritten and partly reshot. Lancaster was committed to star in Judgment at Nuremberg , so he made that film while Frankenheimer prepared the reshoots. The finished film, released in 1962, was a huge success and was nominated for four Oscars, including one for Lancaster's performance.

Frankenheimer was next hired by producer John Houseman to direct All Fall Down , a family drama starring Eva Marie Saint and Warren Beatty. Due to production difficulties with Birdman of Alcatraz, All Fall Down was actually released first.

The Manchurian Candidate

Frankenheimer followed this with his most famous and best-regarded film, The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Frankenheimer and producer George Axelrod bought Richard Condon's 1959 novel after it had already been turned down by many Hollywood studios. After Frank Sinatra committed to the film, they secured backing from United Artists. The story of a Korean War veteran, brainwashed by the Communist Chinese to assassinate a candidate for President, co-starred Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, James Gregory, John McGiver, and Angela Lansbury.

Frankenheimer had to fight to cast Lansbury who had worked with him on All Fall Down and was only three years older than Harvey, who would play her son in the film. Sinatra's preference had initially been for Lucille Ball. The film was nominated for two Oscars, including one for Lansbury.

The film was unseen, either theatrically or on broadcast, for many years. Urban legend has it that the film was pulled from circulation due to the similarity of its plot to the death of President Kennedy the following year, but Frankenheimer states in the Champlin book that it was pulled because of a legal battle between the producer, Sinatra, and the studio over Sinatra's share of the profits. In any event, it was re-released to great acclaim in 1988.

Seven Days in May

Frankenheimer followed with another successful political thriller, Seven Days in May (1964). He again bought the rights to a bestselling book, this time by Charles Bailey II and Fletcher Knebel, and again produced the film with his star, this time Kirk Douglas. Douglas intended to play the role of the General who attempts to lead a coup against the President, who is about to sign a disarmament treaty with the Soviets. Douglas then decided he wanted to work with Burt Lancaster, with whom he had just costarred in another film. To entice Lancaster, Douglas agreed to let him play the General, while Douglas took the less showy lead role of the General's aide, who turns against him and helps the President.

The film, written by Rod Serling, also starred Fredric March as the President and Ava Gardner as a former flame of Lancaster's character. It was nominated for two Oscars.

The Train

The Train (1964) had already begun shooting in France when star Lancaster had Arthur Penn, the original director, fired [11] and called in Frankenheimer to save the film. As he recounts in the Champlin book, Frankenheimer used the production's desperation to his advantage in negotiations. He successfully demanded that his name be made part of the title, John Frankenheimer's The Train; that the French co-director, required by French tax laws, never be allowed to be on the film's set; that he be given total final cut on the film; and that he receive a Ferrari.

Again saddled with an unworkably long script, Frankenheimer threw it out and took the locations and actors left from the previous film and began filming, with writers working in Paris as the production shot in Normandy. The poorly chosen locations caused endless weather delays. The film contains multiple real train wrecks. The Allied bombing of a rail yard was accomplished with real dynamite, as the French rail authority needed to enlarge the track gauge. This can be observed by the shockwaves traveling through the ground during the action sequence. Producers realized after filming that the story needed another action scene, and reassembled some of the cast for a Spitfire attack scene that was inserted into the first third of the film. The script was nominated for an Oscar.


Seconds (1966) tells of an older man (John Randolph) given the body of a young man (Rock Hudson) through experimental surgery. It was poorly received on its release but has come to be one of the director's most respected and popular films subsequently. The film is an expressionistic, part-horror, part-thriller, part-science fiction film about the obsession with eternal youth and misplaced faith in the ability of medical science to achieve it.

The director of photography for Seconds was the highly regarded James Wong Howe, who is well known for pioneering novel techniques in black-and-white cinematography, and whose prolific career spanned nearly five decades. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the film. Seconds was Frankenheimer and Howe's last film in black-and-white. All of Frankenheimer's films up until Grand Prix had been made in black-and-white.

Grand Prix

Frankenheimer on the set of Grand Prix John Frankenheimer 1966 Grand Prix.jpg
Frankenheimer on the set of Grand Prix

Frankenheimer followed Seconds with his most spectacular production, 1966's Grand Prix . Shot on location at the Grand Prix races throughout Europe, using 65-mm Cinerama cameras, the film starred James Garner and Eva Marie Saint. The making was a race itself, as John Sturges and Steve McQueen planned to make a similar movie titled Day of the Champion. [12]

Due to their contract with the German Nürburgring, Frankenheimer had to turn over 27 reels shot there to Sturges. Frankenheimer was ahead in schedule anyway, and the McQueen/Sturges project was called off, while the German race track was only mentioned briefly in Grand Prix. Introducing methods of photographing high-speed auto racing that had never been seen before, mounting cameras on the cars, at full speed and putting the stars in the actual cars, instead of against rear-projections, the film was an international success and won three Oscars, for editing, sound, and sound effects.

Late 1960s

Frankenheimer's next film, 1967's all-star anti-war comedy The Extraordinary Seaman , starred David Niven, Faye Dunaway, Alan Alda and Mickey Rooney. The film was a failure at the box office and critically. Frankenheimer calls it in the Champlin book "the only movie I've made which I would say was a total disaster." [13]

Then came 1968's The Fixer , about a Jew in Tsarist Russia and based on the novel by Bernard Malamud. The film was shot in Communist Hungary. It starred Alan Bates and was not a major success, but Bates was nominated for an Oscar. [14]

Frankenheimer became a close friend of Senator Robert F. Kennedy during the making of The Manchurian Candidate in 1962. In 1968, Kennedy asked Frankenheimer to make some commercials for use in the presidential campaign, at which he hoped to become the Democratic candidate. On the night he was assassinated in June 1968, it was Frankenheimer who had driven Kennedy from the Los Angeles Airport to the Ambassador Hotel for his acceptance speech. [6] [15]

The Gypsy Moths was a romantic drama about a troupe of barnstorming skydivers and their impact on a small midwestern town. The celebration of Americana starred Frankenheimer regular Lancaster, reuniting him with From Here to Eternity co-star Deborah Kerr, and it also featured Gene Hackman. The film failed to find an audience, but Frankenheimer claimed it was one of his favorites. [16]


Frankenheimer followed this with I Walk the Line in 1970. The film, starring Gregory Peck and Tuesday Weld, about a Tennessee sheriff who falls in love with a moonshiner's daughter, was set to songs by Johnny Cash. Frankenheimer's next project took him to Afghanistan. The Horseman focused on the relationship between a father and son, played by Jack Palance and Omar Sharif. Sharif's character, an expert horseman, played the Afghan national sport of buzkashi.

Impossible Object , also known as Story of a Love Story , suffered distribution difficulties and was not widely released. Next came a four-hour film of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh , in 1973, starring Lee Marvin, and the decidedly offbeat 99 and 44/100% Dead , a crime black comedy starring Richard Harris.

With his fluent French and knowledge of French culture, Frankenheimer was asked to direct French Connection II , set entirely in Marseille. With Hackman reprising his role as New York cop Popeye Doyle, the film was a success and got Frankenheimer his next job. Black Sunday , based on author Thomas Harris's only non-Hannibal Lecter novel, involves an Israeli Mossad agent (Robert Shaw), chasing a pro-Palestinian terrorist (Marthe Keller) and a disgruntled Vietnam vet (Bruce Dern), who plan to blow up the Goodyear blimp over the Super Bowl. It was shot on location at the actual Super Bowl X in January 1976 in Miami, with the use of a real Goodyear Blimp. [15] The film tested very highly, and Paramount and Frankenheimer had high expectations for it but it was not a hit.

Frankenheimer is quoted in Champlin's biography as saying that his alcohol problem caused him to do work that was below his own standards on Prophecy (1979), an ecological monster movie about a mutant grizzly bear terrorizing a forest in Maine.


In 1981, Frankenheimer travelled to Japan to shoot the cult martial-arts action film The Challenge , with Scott Glenn and legendary Japanese star Toshiro Mifune. He told Champlin that his drinking became so severe while shooting in Japan that he actually drank on set, which he had never done before, and as a result he entered rehab on returning to America. The film was released in 1982, along with his HBO television adaptation of the acclaimed play The Rainmaker .

In 1985, Frankenheimer directed an adaptation of the Robert Ludlum bestseller The Holcroft Covenant , starring Michael Caine. That was followed the next year with another adaptation, 52 Pick-Up , from the novel by Elmore Leonard. Dead Bang (1989) followed Don Johnson as he infiltrated a group of white supremacists. In 1990, he returned to the Cold War political thriller genre with The Fourth War with Roy Scheider (with whom Frankenheimer had worked previously on 52 Pick-Up ) as a loose cannon Army colonel drawn into a dangerous personal war with a Soviet officer. It was not a commercial success.


Most of his 1980s films were less than successful, both critically and financially, but Frankenheimer was able to make a comeback in the 1990s by returning to his roots in television. He directed two films for HBO in 1994: Against the Wall and The Burning Season that won him several awards and renewed acclaim. The director also helmed two films for Turner Network Television in 1996 and 1997, Andersonville and George Wallace , that were highly praised.

Frankenheimer's 1996 film The Island of Doctor Moreau , which he took over half a week into production from Richard Stanley, was the cause of countless stories of production woes and personality clashes and received scathing reviews.The veteran director was said to be unable to stand Val Kilmer, the young co-star of the film. When Kilmer's last scene was completed, Frankenheimer reportedly said, "Now get that bastard off my set." In an interview, Frankenheimer refused to discuss the film, saying only that he had a miserable time making it. Frankenheimer also professed that "Will Rogers never met Val Kilmer".

However, his next film, 1998's Ronin, starring Robert De Niro, was a return to form, featuring Frankenheimer's now trademark elaborate car chases woven into a labyrinthine espionage plot. Co-starring an international cast including Jean Reno and Jonathan Pryce, it was a critical and box-office success. As the 1990s drew to a close, he even had a rare acting role, appearing in a cameo as a U.S. general in The General's Daughter (1999). He earlier had an uncredited cameo as a TV director in his 1977 film Black Sunday.

John Frankenheimer on the set of Andersonville in 1995 John Frankenheimer on the set of "Andersonville".JPG
John Frankenheimer on the set of Andersonville in 1995

Last years and death

Frankenheimer's last theatrical film, 2000's Reindeer Games , starring Ben Affleck, underperformed. But then came his final film, Path to War for HBO in 2002, which brought him back to his strengths – political machinations, 1960s America and character-based drama, and was nominated for numerous awards. A look back at the Vietnam War, it starred Michael Gambon as President Lyndon Johnson along with Alec Baldwin and Donald Sutherland. One of Frankenheimer's last projects was the 2001 BMW action short-film Ambush for the promotional series The Hire , starring Clive Owen.

Frankenheimer was scheduled to direct Exorcist: The Beginning , but it was announced before filming started that he was withdrawing, citing health concerns. Paul Schrader replaced him. About a month later he died suddenly in Los Angeles, California, from a stroke due to complications following spinal surgery at the age of 72.


The moving image collection of John Frankenheimer is held at the Academy Film Archive. [17]


British Academy Film Awards

Cannes Film Festival

New York Film Critics Circle Award

Venice Film Festival

Frankenheimer is also a member of the Television Hall of Fame, and was inducted in 2002. [18]


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  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Yoram Allon, Yoram; Cullen, Hannah Patterson. Contemporary North American Film Directors, Wallflower Press (2000), pp. 181-83
  3. 1 2 "Hollywood director John Frankenheimer dies at 72". Retrieved May 7, 2017.
  4. Moritz, Charles (1964). Current biography yearbook. H.W. Wilson Company. p. 135.
  5. Champlin, Charles; John Frankenheimer; Lisa Mitchell (1995). John Frankenheimer: a conversation. Riverwood Press. p. 3.
  6. 1 2 Thurber, Jon; King, Susan (July 7, 2002). "John Frankenheimer, 72; Director Was Master of the Political Thriller". Los Angeles Times.
  7. Walsh, David. "Issues raised by the career of US filmmaker John Frankenheimer".
  8. "Playhouse 90 and the End of the Golden Age -".
  9. "John Frankenheimer: A Master Craftsman". Retrieved August 12, 2014.
  10. Honan, William H. (16 September 1999). "Charles Crichton, Film Director, Dies at 89". NY Times . The New York Times Company . Retrieved 7 August 2018.
  11. p. 47 Penn, Arthur Arthur Penn: Interviews Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2008
  12. "Neile McQueen - My Husband, My Friend". Retrieved 2014-04-19.
  13. Charles Champlin; John Frankenheimer; Directors Guild of America (May 1995). John Frankenheimer : a conversation. Riverwood Press. p. 103.
  14. "The 41st Academy Awards | 1969". | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 2018-02-07.
  15. 1 2 Harmetz, Aljean (April 10, 1977). "Frankenheimer Rides a Blimp To a Big, Fat Comeback". New York Times.
  16. Armstrong, Stephen B., ed. (2013). John Frankenheimer: Interviews, Essays, and Profiles. The Scarecrow Press, Inc. p. 168.
  17. "John Frankenheimer Collection". Academy Film Archive. Retrieved May 7, 2017.
  18. "Television Hall of Fame Honorees: Complete List". Retrieved May 7, 2017.

Further reading