William Friedkin, ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘French Connection’ Director, Dies at 87

Friedkin had just finished his last film, “The Caine Mutiny”

William Friedkin
William Friedkin (Getty Images)

William Friedkin, the legendary director of iconic films including “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection” and a leading figure in the “New Hollywood” movement of the 1970s, has died at the age of 87.

Friedkin is best known as the director of two of the most successful Hollywood blockbusters of the early 1970s, “The French Connection” in 1971 (the first action movie to win Best Picture Oscar) and “The Exorcist” in 1973. Friedkin rose to prominence alongside the likes of Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola and Hal Ashby as a member of a new class of Hollywood auteurs.

His death was confirmed to TheWrap by family friend Stephen Galloway who spoke to Friedkin’s wife, Sherry Lansing, herself an iconic leader of Paramount Pictures for many years. No cause of death was provided.

Friedkin had recently completed “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” starring Keifer Sutherland and Jason Clarke. His now-final film will premiere in September at the 80th Venice International Film Festival.

Born in Chicago on Aug. 29, 1935, Friedkin’s father was a semi-professional softball player who worked as a merchant seaman and a men’s clothing salesman. His mother was an operating room nurse. His family had fled Ukraine in 1903 amid an anti-Jewish pogrom. Young Friedkin attended public school and began going to the movies as a teenager, with Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (which he would see later in life) eventually becoming a key influence.

One of Friedkin’s first breakthrough jobs was directing one of the last episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Hitchcock would reportedly scold the young filmmaker for not wearing a tie while on set. He Friedkin directed several smaller features in the late 1960s before breaking onto the A-list with “The French Connection.”

He followed that actioner up with an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel “The Exorcist.” The blockbuster horror movie was, alongside “The Godfather” a year earlier, an example of a pre-“Jaws” mega-smash. The Oscar-nominated classic was as revolutionary for the horror genre, spawning a decade’s worth of prestigious, adult-skewing scary movies like “The Omen,” as his previous film was for action films.

However, in a skewed irony, his next film, the Roy Scheider-starring “Sorcerer,” got clobbered at the box office in the summer of 1977 by George Lucas’ “Star Wars.” The Hollywood New Wave went head-t0-head with what would become the template for the modern tentpole film and Friedkin’s career never really recovered.

He still directed features semi-regularly, but the likes of “Cruising” (an Al Pacino-starring thriller about a cop hunting a serial killer targeting gay men) and “The Guardian” (a supernatural thriller that had an “anyone could have made this” quality) didn’t receive anywhere near the acclaim and success of his early 1970’s one-two punch. “To Live and Die in LA,” a relentless cop thriller with — like “The French Connection” — another jaw-dropping car chase, is now considered a modern classic. However, David Caruso and Linda Florentino’s “Jade” is now considered among the nadirs of the post-“Basic Instinct” run of erotic thrillers.

“The Hunted,” “Bug” and “Killer Joe” received their share of acclaim — the latter two adapted by Tracy Letts from his own stage shows — but none was a sizable hit.

He was survived by his fourth wife, Lansing — to whom he was married since 1991 — and two sons.