William Friedkin

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William Friedkin
William Friedkin, Festival de Sitges 2017 (cropped).jpg
Friedkin at the 2017 Sitges Film Festival
Born (1935-08-29) August 29, 1935 (age 86)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Education Senn High School
  • Director
  • producer
  • screenwriter
Years active1962–present
William Friedkin Signature.svg

William Friedkin ( /ˈfrdkɪn/ ; born August 29, 1935) [1] is an American film and television director, producer and screenwriter closely identified with the "New Hollywood" movement of the 1970s. [2] [3] Beginning his career in documentaries in the early 1960s, he is perhaps best known for directing the action thriller film The French Connection (1971), which won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director, and the supernatural horror film The Exorcist (1973), which earned him a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Director.


His other films include The Boys in the Band (1970), the suspense thriller Sorcerer (1977), the controversial crime film Cruising (1980), [4] [5] the action thriller To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), the psychological horror film Bug (2006), and the dark comedy Killer Joe (2011).

Early life

Friedkin was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Rachael (née Green) and Louis Friedkin. His father was a semi-professional softball player, merchant seaman, and men's clothing salesman. His mother, whom Friedkin called "a saint", was an operating room registered nurse. [1] His parents were Jewish emigrants from Ukraine. [6] His grandparents, parents, and other relatives fled Ukraine during a particularly violent anti-Jewish pogrom in 1903. [7] Friedkin's father was somewhat uninterested in making money, and the family was generally lower middle class while he was growing up. [1] According to film historian Peter Biskind, "Friedkin viewed his father with a mixture of affection and contempt for not making more of himself." [1] According to his memoir, The Friedkin Connection, Friedkin had the utmost affection for his father.

Friedkin attended public schools in Chicago. He enrolled at Senn High School, where he played basketball well enough to consider turning professional. [8] Friedkin was not a serious student and barely received grades good enough to graduate, [9] which he did at the age of 16. [10] According to Friedkin, this was because of social promotion and not because he was bright. [11]

Friedkin began going to movies as a teenager, [8] and has cited Citizen Kane as one of his key influences. Several sources claim that Friedkin saw this motion picture as a teenager, [12] but Friedkin himself says that he did not see the film until 1960, when he was 25 years old. Only then, Friedkin says, did he become a true cineaste. [13] Among the movies which he saw as a teenager and young adult were Les Diaboliques , The Wages of Fear , and Psycho (which he viewed repeatedly, like Citizen Kane). Televised documentaries such as 1960's Harvest of Shame also were important in his developing sense of cinema. [8]

He began working in the mail room at WGN-TV immediately after high school. [14] Within two years (at the age of 18), [15] he started his directorial career doing live television shows and documentaries. [16] His efforts included The People vs. Paul Crump (1962), which won an award at the San Francisco International Film Festival and contributed to the commutation of Crump's death sentence. [15] [17] Its success helped Friedkin get a job with producer David L. Wolper. [15] He also made the football-themed documentary Mayhem on a Sunday Afternoon. [18]


As mentioned in Friedkin's voice-over commentary on the DVD re-release of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo , Friedkin directed one of the last episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1965, called "Off Season". Hitchcock admonished Friedkin for not wearing a tie while directing. [19]

In 1965, Friedkin moved to Hollywood and two years later released his first feature film, Good Times starring Sonny and Cher. He has referred to the film as "unwatchable". [20] Several other "art" films followed: The Birthday Party , based on an unpublished screenplay by Harold Pinter, which he adapted from his own play; the musical comedy The Night They Raided Minsky's ; and the adaptation of Mart Crowley's play The Boys in the Band .

Friedkin, c. 1970 Friedkin.jpg
Friedkin, c. 1970

His next film, The French Connection , was released to wide critical acclaim in 1971. Shot in a gritty style more suited for documentaries than Hollywood features, the film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Friedkin followed up with 1973's The Exorcist , based on William Peter Blatty's best-selling novel, which revolutionized the horror genre and is considered by some critics to be one of the greatest horror movies of all time. The Exorcist was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It won for Best Screenplay and Best Sound.

Following these two pictures, Friedkin, along with Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich, was deemed one of the premier directors of New Hollywood. In 1973, the trio announced the formation of an independent production company at Paramount, The Directors Company. Whereas Coppola directed The Conversation and Bogdanovich, the Henry James adaptation, Daisy Miller , Friedkin abruptly left the company, which was soon closed by Paramount. [21] But Friedkin's later movies did not achieve the same success. Sorcerer (1977), a $22 million American remake of the French classic The Wages of Fear , co-produced by both Universal and Paramount, starring Roy Scheider, was overshadowed by the blockbuster box-office success of Star Wars , which had been released exactly one week prior. Friedkin considers it his finest film, and was personally devastated by its financial and critical failure (as mentioned by Friedkin himself in the documentary series The Directors (1999)).

Sorcerer was shortly followed by the crime-comedy The Brink's Job (1978), based on the real-life Great Brink's Robbery in Boston, Massachusetts, which was also unsuccessful at the box-office. In 1980, he directed an adaptation of the Gerald Walker crime thriller Cruising , starring Al Pacino, which was protested against even during its making and remains the subject of heated debate. The film was critically assailed, and was a financial disappointment. [22]

Friedkin suffered a major heart attack on March 6, 1981. He had a genetically-caused defect in his circumflex left coronary artery, and nearly died. He spent months in rehabilitation. [23]

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Friedkin's films received mostly lackluster reviews and moderate ticket sales. Deal of the Century (1983), starring Chevy Chase, Gregory Hines and Sigourney Weaver, was sometimes regarded as a latter-day Dr. Strangelove , though it was generally savaged by critics. However, his action/crime movie To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), starring William Petersen and Willem Dafoe, was a critical favorite and drew comparisons to Friedkin's own The French Connection (particularly for its car-chase sequence), while his courtroom-drama/thriller Rampage (1987) received a fairly positive review from Roger Ebert despite major distribution problems. He next directed the horror film The Guardian (1990) and then the thriller Jade (1995), starring Linda Fiorentino; the latter film received a somewhat favorable response from critics and audiences. Friedkin even said that Jade was the favorite of all the films he had made, [24] as is Sorcerer. [25]

In 2000, The Exorcist was re-released in theaters with extra footage and grossed $40 million in the U.S. alone. Friedkin's involvement in 2007's Bug resulted from a positive experience watching the stage version in 2004. He was surprised to find that he was, metaphorically, on the same page as the playwright and felt that he could relate well to the story. [26] The film won the FIPRESCI prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Later, Friedkin directed an episode of the TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation titled "Cockroaches", which re-teamed him with To Live and Die in L.A. star William Petersen. He directed again for CSI's 200th episode, "Mascara".

Friedkin at Festival Deauville, France, 2012 William Friedkin (cropped).jpg
Friedkin at Festival Deauville, France, 2012

In June 2010, author William Peter Blatty, promoting his latest novel, revealed that Friedkin had committed to direct the feature film adaptation of his thriller, Dimiter . [27] This would mark almost forty years since their previous collaboration, The Exorcist , not counting the failed collaboration between the two on The Exorcist III . The idea for the book itself actually came to Blatty while sitting in Friedkin's office in 1972 during the first film's production, as he read an article concerning the then atheist-run state of Albania executing a priest for baptizing a newborn infant. [28] He had worked on it on and off ever since 1974, and, upon its completion, sat down with Friedkin for a one-on-one interview in The Huffington Post a few days after Blatty named Friedkin as attached to direct. According to the author, his friend and director had been eager to adapt the story.

In 2011, Friedkin directed Killer Joe , a black comedy written by Tracy Letts, and starring Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon, and Thomas Haden Church. Killer Joe premiered at the 68th Venice International Film Festival, prior to its North American debut at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. It opened in U.S. theaters in July 2012, to some favorable reviews from critics but did poorly at the box office, possibly because of its restrictive NC-17 rating.

In April 2013, Friedkin published a memoir, The Friedkin Connection. [29] He was presented with a lifetime achievement award at the 70th Venice International Film Festival in September. [30]

Unreleased projects

Friedkin has had an array of unrealized projects, including The Ripper Diaries, about the manhunt of Jack the Ripper; a film about the account of the Florence Maybrick murder trial, titled Battle Grease; [31] an adaptation of the Frank De Felitta suspense novel Sea Trial. [32] A film about the murder of Gianni Versace and the killing spree of his murderer, Andrew Cunanan, titled The Man Who Killed Versace which was written by Frederic Raphael and to be produced by Cruising producer Jerry Weintraub was to have Sergio Castellitto as Versace and Freddie Prinze, Jr. in the lead role as Cunanan. A horror thriller A Safe Darkness, the cop thriller Bump City and the UFO thriller The Devil's Triangle. [33] It was also reported that Friedkin is to direct an HBO movie about the life of the provocative entertainer Mae West starring Bette Midler, titled Queen of the World as West based on her memoirs written by Harvey Fierstein. [34] Friedkin was once in discussions with executive producer David Kirschner to direct the 1988 horror film Child’s Play , which initiated the Chucky franchise, and also intended to direct The Exorcist III before leaving from creative conflicts with William Peter Blatty. [35] [36] [37] Also, Friedkin is in talks to direct Don Winslow's crime novel The Winter of Frankie Machine. [38] In 2014, Friedkin was asked to direct the entire second season of True Detective but he rejected the offer after reading the first scripts of the season. Friedkin was slated to direct a film adaptation of Robin Cook's novel Brain . [39] On September 2021, Friedkin referenced that he is working on a film adaption of The Caine Mutiny . The project is currently in its development stage.[ citation needed ]


The moving image collection of William Friedkin is held at the Academy Film Archive. The material at the Academy Film Archive is complemented by material in the William Friedkin papers at the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library. [40]

Personal life

Friedkin and Sherry Lansing at the Deauville American Film Festival in 2012 William Friedkin Sherry Lansing Deauville 2012.jpg
Friedkin and Sherry Lansing at the Deauville American Film Festival in 2012

William Friedkin has been married four times:

While he was filming The Boys in the Band in 1970, Friedkin began a relationship with Kitty Hawks, daughter of director Howard Hawks. It lasted two years, during which the couple announced their engagement, but the relationship ended about 1972. [49] Friedkin began a four-year relationship with Australian dancer and choreographer Jennifer Nairn-Smith in 1972. Although they announced an engagement twice, they never married. They did, however, have a son, Cedric, born on November 27, 1976. [50] Friedkin and his second wife, Lesley-Anne Down, also had a son, Jack, born in 1983. [44] Friedkin was raised Jewish, but called himself an agnostic later in life. [51] [52] However, during an appearance and Q&A at a 40th anniversary screening of The Exorcist at the 2013 Dallas International Film Festival, Friedkin said he "believes strongly in God" and "the teachings of Jesus" and other religious figures, and that mankind is "in God's hands." [53]



1967 Good Times YesNoNo
1968 The Birthday Party YesNoNo
The Night They Raided Minsky's YesNoNo
1970 The Boys in the Band YesNoNo
1971 The French Connection YesNoNo Academy Award for Best Director
Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement
Golden Globe Award for Best Director
Nominated BAFTA Award for Best Direction
1973 The Exorcist YesNoNo Empire Movie Masterpiece Award
Golden Globe Award for Best Director
Nominated Academy Award for Best Director
Nominated Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement
1977 Sorcerer YesNoYes
1978 The Brink's Job YesNoNo
1980 Cruising YesYesNoNominated Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director
Nominated Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Screenplay
1983 Deal of the Century YesNoNo
1985 To Live and Die in L.A. YesYesNo Festival du Film Policier de Cognac Audience Award
1987 Rampage YesYesYesNominated Saturn Award for Best Direction
Nominated Deauville Film Festival Critics Award
1990 The Guardian YesYesNo
1994 Blue Chips YesNoNo
1995 Jade YesNoNo
2000 Rules of Engagement YesNoNo
2003 The Hunted YesNoNo
2006 Bug YesNoNo FIPRESCI Prize Quinzaine des Réalisateurs
Nominated C.I.C.A.E. Award
2011 Killer Joe [54] YesNoNo Venice Film Festival Golden Mouse Award
Nominated Filmfest München Arri Award for Best International Film
Nominated Saturn Award for Best Director
Nominated Venice Film Festival Golden Lion Award
2017 The Devil and Father Amorth YesYesNoDocumentary
2018 Friedkin Uncut NoNoNoDocumentary about William Friedkin


1965 The Alfred Hitchcock Hour Episode "Off Season"
1985 The Twilight Zone Episode "Nightcrawlers"
1992 Tales from the Crypt Episode "On a Deadman's Chest"
2007-2009 CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Episodes "Cockroaches" and "Mascara"

TV movies

1986 C.A.T. Squad Also executive producer
1988 C.A.T. Squad: Python Wolf
1994 Jailbreakers
1997 12 Angry Men

Documentary films


1972 Academy Award Best DirectorThe French ConnectionWon
Directors Guild of America Outstanding Directorial AchievementWon
Golden Globes Best DirectorWon
1973 BAFTA Award Best DirectorNominated
1974 Academy Award Best DirectorThe ExorcistNominated
Directors Guild of America Outstanding Directorial AchievementNominated
Golden Globes Best DirectorWon
1981 Razzie Awards Worst DirectorCruisingNominated
Worst ScreenplayNominated
1986 Cognac Festival du Film Policier Audience AwardTo Live and Die in L.A.Won
1988 Deauville Film Festival Critics AwardRampageNominated
1991 Saturn Award George Pal Memorial AwardWon
1993Best DirectorRampageNominated
1998 Directors Guild of America Outstanding Directorial Achievement12 Angry MenNominated
Primetime Emmy Awards Best DirectorNominated
1999 Saturn Award President's AwardWon
Empire Awards Movie Masterpiece AwardThe ExorcistWon
2000 Palm Beach International Film Festival Lifetime Achievement AwardWon
2006 Cannes Film Festival FIPRESCIBugWon
2007 Munich Film Festival CineMerit AwardWon
Sitges - Catalan International Film Festival Time-Machine Honorary AwardWon
2009 Locarno International Film Festival Leopard of HonorWon
2011 Venice Film Festival Golden LionKiller JoeNominated
Golden MouseWon
2013 Belgian Film Critics Association Grand Prix Nominated
Saturn Award Best DirectorNominated
Lifetime Achievement AwardWon
Venice Film Festival Special LionWon

Friedkin was made Honorary Associate of London Film School [ citation needed ].

See also


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Further reading