Though American director John Frankenheimer (born 1930) is best known for his challenging films of the early 1960s, he got his start directing live television dramas in the 1950s and revived his career in that medium in the 1990s.
Frankenheimer was born on February 19, 1930, in Melba, New York. His father was a German Jewish stockbroker, while his mother was Irish Catholic. Frankenheimer was raised in the Catholic faith and received his education at LaSalle Military Academy, a Catholic military school. After graduating from LaSalle in 1947, Frankenheimer entered Williams College. By this time, he had developed an interest in acting and studied drama. Frankenheimer earned his B.A. degree from Williams in 1951.
Became Involved in Production
When Frankenheimer completed his education at Williams, the Korean War was underway. He served in the U.S. Air Force between 1951 and 1953. It was during this time that Frankenheimer became interested in the production of film and television and lost his interest in acting. He became attached to the film squadron that was based in California where he learned about production. Frankenheimer loved working with cameras, often taking some home on the weekend to learn more about them. Deciding to become a filmmaker, Frankenheimer produced some documentary shorts.
While still in the Air Force, Frankenheimer had his first experiences as a director. He had been writing for a local series in Los Angeles called either Harvey Howard's Ranch Roundup or The Harry Howard Ranch Hour (sources vary) that aired on KCOP. When the show's director was unable, he was forced to make his debut as director. The show featured cows and the rancher Howard. Despite his inexperience, Frankenheimer was kept on as director for three more months, until the show was taken off the air by the Federal Communications Commission.
Early Work in Television
When Frankenheimer's tour of duty in the military was completed, he decided to pursue his goal of directing. Returning to the East Coast, Frankenheimer was hired as an assistant director for CBS-TV in New York City. This was the era of live television and television plays. Between 1953 and 1954, Frankenheimer was the assistant director on shows such as Person to Person, The Garry Moore Show, and You Are There. Frankenheimer did the work of a cinematographer as well, by setting up shots in the control room for the director.
When Sidney Lumet, the director of You Are There, left the show to begin a film directing career in 1954, Frankenheimer was promoted to director. While Lumet went on to have a solid film career, Frankenheimer also made the most of his opportunity. He built a significant career directing live television plays that received much praise from critics and audiences alike.
While directing over 150 television plays for series like Climax, Ford Startime, Buick Electra Playhouse, Playhouse 90, and other anthology series, Frankenheimer worked with a number of accomplished actors, as well as future stars. They included Claudette Colbert, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, and Paul Newman. Some of the more famous episodes that Frankenheimer directed were "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "Journey to the Day."
For Frankenheimer, live television was challenging. It allowed him the freedom to try out new things, including deep focus photography, distinctive angles, and other interesting camera work. Frankenheimer told Jay Carr of the Boston Globe that "I did an awful lot of television, and out of that I developed a very fluid camera style. I learned through doing it how to stage very complicated scenes and how to photograph them. So it gave me a great freedom when I got into movies—that I wasn't scared of it, that I didn't worry what I'd do with the camera, that I'd find a way to photograph the scene."
Directed First Film
Frankenheimer made his first foray into film directing in 1956. He turned an episode of the Climax series into a movie entitled The Young Stranger. As a film director, he tried to bring the same creativity that he employed in live television, but found his crew to be unresponsive and the medium too restrictive. Though critics generally were impressed, Frankenheimer returned to television and did not make another film for five years.
In the early 1960s, Frankenheimer left television and worked primarily in film for the next 30 years. This period proved to be his most fruitful as a filmmaker. He earned a reputation as an innovative, technically skilled filmmaker. Frankenheimer was not afraid to use fast film stocks and new light cameras. Many of these early successes featured themes of social and political intrigue.
After 1961's The Young Savages, a courtroom drama that dealt with social problems of the day, Frankenheimer made arguably the three most significant films of his career in 1962. The first All Fall Down was often overshadowed by the other two. This striking film about brothers was well-received by critics. A more popular film with audiences was Birdman of Alcatraz, a biopic of Robert Stroud that starred Burt Lancaster. Frankenheimer took over the production from Charles Crichton; he would perform such a task a number of times over his career.
The most important film by Frankenheimer in 1962 was The Manchurian Candidate. This political suspense thriller starred Frank Sinatra and Angela Landsbury. Both a commercial and critical success, it has retained an enduring following. Riding the success of these films, he formed his own production company, John Frankenheimer Productions, in 1963.
Frankenheimer made several more important films in the mid-1960s. Seven Days in May (1964) was, like The Manchurian Candidate, another Cold War suspense thriller. This film portrays a military coup attempt against the U.S. government. Frankenheimer took over the production of The Train (1964) after its first director, Arthur Penn, was fired. Set in Europe during World War II, the story focused on a train bound for Nazi Germany loaded with French art and the intrigue that surrounded it.
Decline in Reputation
By the late 1960s, the quality of Frankenheimer's work was seen as being in decline. His films were not as technically fresh and lacked the strong stories of his previous works. Critics believed that he made a misstep with his two 1966 releases, Grand Prix and Seconds. The former was about auto racing. Business demands forced Frankenheimer to cut the film in a way he believed was detrimental. The latter was about a man who changes his appearance.
On a more personal level, Frankenheimer suffered a great loss in the late 1960s. A close of friend of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Frankenheimer had been hosting the presidential candidate at his home in Malibu in 1968 when Kennedy was assassinated. Frankenheimer was devastated by the loss. Soon after Kennedy's death, he moved to Europe with his second wife, actress Evans Evans. Though he continued to make films there, few were commercial successes. During his time in Europe, Frankenheimer also went took cooking lessons at the Cordon Bleu, emerging as a trained chef.
Returned to the United States
When Frankenheimer came back to the United States in the early 1970s, he enjoyed some successes as a filmmaker, though the quality of his work did not match his early films. After the relative failure of The Iceman Cometh (1973), Frankenheimer revived his career with The French Connection II (1975). He saw big box office success with Black Sunday (1977). The plot concerned a terrorist who planned to crash a blimp into the Superbowl.
After these high points, Frankenheimer had only a few releases scattered over the next decade. To many critics, his choice of projects was somewhat questionable. Many were made for the money. Among the undistinguished releases were Prophecy in 1979 and The Challenge in 1982. By the early 1980s, Frankenheimer had reached a low point in his career, stemming in part from a long-term problem with alcohol. After receiving treatment and dealing with many related issues, he stopped drinking in 1981 and was able to get his life back on track.
While Frankenheimer put his demons to rest, his professional life remained undistinguished. He was able to find work, but most of his projects were mediocre. In 1986, Frankenheimer directed 52 Pick-Up, which was reasonably successful. Three years later, he took on Dead Bang (1989), which proved to be a commercial failure. The Fourth War (1990) was a political thriller in the same vein as The Manchurian Candidate, but without enjoying the same prestige.
Won Four Emmys
After the relative failure of Year of the Gun (1991), about a conspiracy that forms around an innocent American journalist in Rome, Frankenheimer did not make a film for five years. Instead, he focused on projects for television. These works were successful both with audiences and critics. His first movie was Against the Wall (1994) for the cable network, HBO. This was a personal story about the Attica prison riots that Frankenheimer shot in newsreel style. That same year, he took on another movie for HBO, The Burning Season, about Chico Mendes, the Brazilian activist who fought against the exploitation of workers in the Amazon rain forest. Both projects won Emmy Awards.
Frankenheimer then shot two movies for the TNT cable television network. Andersonville (1996) focused on the horrific Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in which thousands of Union soldiers died. The following year, TNT aired Frankenheimer's biopic George Wallace, about the former governor of Alabama who went from strict segregationist to support of the anti-segregation movement. Frankenheimer again won Emmys for both works. Though Frankenheimer had enjoyed much success as a film director, he told Nina J. Easton of the Los Angeles Times, "If they had live television today, I'd still be doing it. You had total control as a director. It was live, so we had final cut. And you had no such thing as a difficult actor."
Returned to Film
Frankenheimer's successes on television led to more film offers, though some of the projects were problematic. He took over the faltering production of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), after the film company, New Line Cinema, was forced to fire its first director. Frankenheimer agreed to take on the nightmarish production because he needed the money. Though the film was panned by critics, Frankenheimer delivered what New Line wanted: a completed film with a coherent, ordered story, that was reasonably successful at the box office.
His accomplishments with Dr. Moreau led to better film projects. In 1998, he directed Ronin, an action thriller that starred Robert De Niro and performed reasonably well at the box office. Frankenheimer's 30th film was another suspense thriller, this time focused on crime, called Reindeer Games (2000). While it received mixed reviews from critics, the film had some success connecting with audiences.
Still directing after the age of 70, Frankenheimer hoped to match, if not exceed, his early successes. He told Robert Wilonsky of the Dallas Observer, "You can't be burdened by your legacy. … People say, 'You'll never do a movie as good as Manchurian Candidate.' I say, 'I probably won't, but you know what? I'm just gonna keep on trudging along.' But the answer in my own heart is, I think I will."
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