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William Friedkin

William Friedkin
Friedkin in 2017
William David Friedkin

(1935-08-29)August 29, 1935
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
DiedAugust 7, 2023(2023-08-07) (aged 87)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
EducationSenn High School
  • Director
  • producer
  • screenwriter
Years active1962–2023
  • (m. 1977; div. 1979)
  • (m. 1982; div. 1985)
  • (m. 1987; div. 1990)
  • (m. 1991)

William David Friedkin (/ˈfrdkɪn/; August 29, 1935 – August 7, 2023) was an American film, television and opera director, producer, and screenwriter who was closely identified with the "New Hollywood" movement of the 1970s.[1][2] Beginning his career in documentaries in the early 1960s, he is best known for his crime thriller film The French Connection (1971), which won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and the horror film The Exorcist (1973), which earned him another Academy Award nomination for Best Director.

Friedkin's other films in the 1970s and 1980s include the drama The Boys in the Band (1970), considered a milestone of queer cinema, the originally deprecated, now lauded thriller Sorcerer (1977), the crime comedy drama The Brink's Job (1978), the controversial thriller Cruising (1980),[3][4] and the neo-noir thriller To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). Although Friedkin's works suffered an overall commercial and critical decline in the late 1980s, his last three feature films, all based on plays, were positively received by critics: the psychological horror film Bug (2006), the crime film Killer Joe (2011), and the legal drama film The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (2023), released two months after his death. He also worked extensively as an opera director from 1998 until his death, and directed various television films and series episodes for television.

Early life and education

Friedkin was born in Chicago, Illinois, on August 29, 1935, 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 a nurse.[5][6] His parents were Jewish emigrants from Ukraine.[7] His grandparents, parents, and other relatives fled Ukraine during a particularly violent anti-Jewish pogrom in 1903.[8] Friedkin's father was somewhat uninterested in making money, and the family was generally lower middle class while he was growing up. According to film historian Peter Biskind, "Friedkin viewed his father with a mixture of affection and contempt for not making more of himself."[5]

After attending public schools in Chicago, Friedkin enrolled at Senn High School, where he played basketball well enough to consider turning professional.[9] He was not a serious student and barely received grades good enough to graduate,[10] which he did at the age of 16.[11] He said this was because of social promotion and not because he was bright.[12]

Friedkin began going to movies as a teenager,[9] and cited Citizen Kane as one of his key influences. Several sources claim that Friedkin saw this motion picture as a teenager,[13] but Friedkin himself said that he did not see the film until 1960, when he was 25 years old. Only then, Friedkin said, did he become a true cineaste.[14] Among the movies that he also saw as a teenager and young adult were Les Diaboliques, The Wages of Fear (which many consider he remade as Sorcerer), and Psycho (which he viewed repeatedly, like Citizen Kane). Televised documentaries such as 1960's Harvest of Shame were also important to his developing sense of cinema.[9]

Friedkin began working in the mail room at WGN-TV immediately after high school.[15] Within two years (at the age of 18),[16] he started his directorial career doing live television shows and documentaries.[17] 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.[16][18] Its success helped Friedkin get a job with producer David L. Wolper.[16] He also made the football-themed documentary Mayhem on a Sunday Afternoon (1965).[19]



As mentioned in his 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.[20]

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".[21] Several other 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, starring Jason Robards and Britt Ekland; and the adaptation of Mart Crowley's play The Boys in the Band.[22]

Friedkin and others during the filming of the Exorcist
From left: Friedkin, Owen Roizman and William Peter Blatty on set of The Exorcist

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.[23] Friedkin's next film was 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 Pictures, 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.[24]

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.[23] Friedkin considered it his finest film, and was personally devastated by its financial and critical failure (as mentioned by Friedkin himself in the 1999 documentary series The Directors). 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.[25]


In 1980, Friedkin directed an adaptation of the Gerald Walker crime thriller Cruising, starring Al Pacino, which was protested during production and remains the subject of heated debate. It was a critically assailed financial disappointment.[26]

Friedkin had a heart attack on March 6, 1981, due to a genetic defect in his circumflex left coronary artery, and nearly died. He spent months in rehabilitation.[27] His next picture was 1983's Deal of the Century, a satire about arms dealing starring Chevy Chase, Gregory Hines, and Sigourney Weaver.

In 1985, Friedkin directed the music video for Barbra Streisand's rendition of the West Side Story song "Somewhere",[28] which she recorded for her twenty-fourth studio LP, The Broadway Album. He later appears as Streisand's interviewer (uncredited) on the television special, "Putting It Together: The Making of the Broadway Album".[29]

The 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.[30] He next directed the cult classic horror film The Guardian (1990) and the thriller Jade (1995), starring Linda Fiorentino. Though the latter received an unfavorable response from critics and audiences, he said it was one of the favorite films he directed.[31]


Friedkin speaking at a podium
Friedkin at the 2012 Deauville American Film Festival

In 2000, The Exorcist was re-released in theaters with extra footage and grossed $40 million in the U.S. alone. Friedkin directed the 2006 film Bug due to 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.[32] 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.[33] He directed again for CSI's 200th episode, "Mascara".[34]

In 2011, Friedkin directed Killer Joe, a black comedy written by Tracy Letts based on Letts' play, 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.[35] He was presented with a lifetime achievement award at the 70th Venice International Film Festival in September.[36] In 2017, Friedkin directed the documentary The Devil and Father Amorth about the ninth exorcism of a woman in the Italian village of Alatri.[37] In August 2022, it was announced officially that Friedkin would be returning to film directing to helm an adaptation of the two-act play The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial with Kiefer Sutherland starring as Lt. Commander Queeg.[38] The film was completed before Friedkin's death, and debuted in September 2023 in the out-of-competition category at the Venice Film Festival.[39]


Friedkin cited Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, François Truffaut, and Akira Kurosawa as influences.[40] Friedkin named Woody Allen as "the greatest living filmmaker".[41]

In regards to influences of specific films on his films, Friedkin noted that The French Connection['s] documentary-like realism was the direct result of the influence of having seen Z, a French film by Costa-Gavras:

After I saw Z, I realized how I could shoot The French Connection. Because he shot Z like a documentary. It was a fiction film but it was made like it was actually happening. Like the camera didn't know what was gonna happen next. And that is an induced technique. It looks like he happened upon the scene and captured what was going on as you do in a documentary. My first films were documentaries too. So I understood what he was doing but I never thought you could do that in a feature at that time until I saw Z.[42]

Personal life

Friedkin with wife Sherry Lansing in 2012

Friedkin was married four times:

While 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.[51] 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 had a son, Cedric, on November 27, 1976.[52][53] Friedkin and his second wife, Lesley-Anne Down, also had a son, Jack, born in 1982.[46] Friedkin was raised Jewish, but called himself an agnostic later in life, although he said that he strongly believed in the teachings of Jesus Christ.[54][55]


Friedkin died from heart failure and pneumonia at his home in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles on August 7, 2023,[6][56] just 22 days before his 88th birthday.[57]



Narrative films

Year Title Director Writer Producer Ref(s)
1967 Good Times Yes Uncredited No [58]
1968 The Birthday Party Yes No No [59]
The Night They Raided Minsky's Yes No No [58]
1970 The Boys in the Band Yes No No [58]
1971 The French Connection Yes Uncredited No [58]
1973 The Exorcist Yes No No [58]
1977 Sorcerer Yes Uncredited Yes [58]
1978 The Brink's Job Yes No No [58]
1980 Cruising Yes Yes No [58]
1983 Deal of the Century Yes No No [58]
1985 To Live and Die in L.A. Yes Yes No [58]
1987 Rampage Yes Yes Yes [58]
1990 The Guardian Yes Yes No [58]
1994 Blue Chips Yes No No [58]
1995 Jade Yes Uncredited No [58]
2000 Rules of Engagement Yes No No [58]
2003 The Hunted Yes No No [58]
2006 Bug Yes No No [58]
2011 Killer Joe Yes No No [58]
2023 The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial Yes Yes No [59]

Documentary films

Year Title Director Writer Producer Ref(s)
1962 The People vs. Paul Crump Yes No Yes [58]
1965 The Bold Men Yes No No [58]
Mayhem on a Sunday Afternoon Yes No Yes [60]
1966 The Thin Blue Line Yes Story Yes [58]
1975 Fritz Lang Interviewed by William Friedkin Yes No No [58]
1986 Putting It Together: The Making of the Broadway Album Uncredited No No [58]
2007 The Painter's Voice Yes No No [61]
2017 The Devil and Father Amorth Yes Yes No [59]

Music videos

Year Title Artist Ref(s)
1984 "Self Control" Laura Branigan [62]
1985 "Somewhere" Barbra Streisand [63]


TV series

Year Title Episode Ref(s)
1965 The Alfred Hitchcock Hour "Off Season" (S3 E29) [59]
1967 The Pickle Bros. TV pilot (S1 E1) [58]
1985 The Twilight Zone "Nightcrawlers" (S1 E4c) [64]
1992 Tales from the Crypt "On a Deadman's Chest" (S4 E3) [59]
2007 CSI: Crime Scene Investigation "Cockroaches" (S8 E9) [59]
2009 "Mascara" (S9 E18) [59]

TV movies

Year Title Director Writer Executive
1986 C.A.T. Squad Yes No Yes [58]
1988 C.A.T. Squad: Python Wolf Yes Yes Yes [58]
1994 Jailbreakers Yes No No [58]
1997 12 Angry Men Yes No No [59]



Year Title and Composer Country / Opera House Ref(s)
1998 Wozzeck,
Alban Berg
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Theatre [65]
2002 Duke Bluebeard's Castle,
Béla Bartók
Los Angeles Opera [66][67]
Gianni Schicchi,
Giacomo Puccini
2003 La damnation de Faust,
Hector Berlioz
2004 Ariadne auf Naxos,
Richard Strauss
2005 Samson and Delilah,
Camille Saint-Saëns
June, New Israeli Opera
October, Los Angeles Opera
Giuseppe Verdi
Teatro Regio Torino [70][71]
2006 Salome,
Richard Strauss
Bavarian State Opera [72]
Das Gehege,
Wolfgang Rihm
2008 Il tabarro,
Giacomo Puccini
Los Angeles Opera [74]
Suor Angelica,
Giacomo Puccini
2011 The Makropulos Case,
Leoš Janáček
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Theatre [75]
2012 The Tales of Hoffmann,
Jacques Offenbach
Theater an der Wien [72]
2015 Rigoletto,
Giuseppe Verdi
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Theatre [76]


Year Title Theatre Principal Cast Ref(s)
1981 Duet for One Royale Theatre Max von Sydow,
Anne Bancroft

Unrealized projects

Year Title and description Ref(s)
1960s They Shoot Horses, Don't They? [79]
1970s A film adaptation of Ross Thomas' novel The Brass Go-Between [80]
The Bunker Hill Boys, a film for The Directors Company [81]
Untitled sci-fi film with Peter Gabriel [82][83]
The Devil's Triangle, a UFO thriller starring Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen and Charlton Heston [84][85]
A Safe Darkness, a documentary about horror cinema featuring interviews with Fritz Lang and Roman Polanski [86][85]
A made-for-television film adaptation of Will Eisner's comic The Spirit written by Harlan Ellison [87]
A 10-hour television adaptation of Thomas Thompson's novel Blood and Money [88][89]
A film adaptation of Ron Hansen's novel Desperadoes written by Walon Green [90]
1980s A film adaptation of Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman's novel No One Here Gets Out Alive [91]
A film adaptation of Gay Talese's novel Thy Neighbor's Wife [92]
A film adaptation of Robin Cook's novel Brain [93]
That Championship Season [94]
A film adaptation of William Peter Blatty's novel Legion [95]
A film adaptation of Frank De Felitta's novel Sea Trial starring Laura Branigan and Michael Nouri [96][97]
Judgement Day, a film written by Pete Hamill starring Gregory Peck [98][99]
A film adaptation of Don Pendleton's The Executioner series written by Hilary Henkin starring Sylvester Stallone and Cynthia Rothrock [100][101]
The Gambler, a film written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner starring Sylvester Stallone [101]
Desperate Hours [102]
Untitled biopic about 1950s songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller [103][104]
1990s Elsewhere, a ghost story with William Peter Blatty [105][106]
The Diary of Jack the Ripper, a biopic about James Maybrick written by Chris DeVore starring Anthony Hopkins [107][108]
A film adaptation of John Flood's novel Bag Men starring Michael Keaton [109]
A remake of the 1996 made-for-television film Truth or Dare written by William Davies [110]
Night Train, a biopic about boxer Sonny Liston written by Shane Salerno and Tyger Williams starring Ving Rhames [111][112][113]
Battle Grease, a film about the account of the Florence Maybrick murder trial [114]
2000s A film adaptation of Larry Collins' novel O Jerusalem! written by James Dearden [115]
Shooter starring Tommy Lee Jones [112]
Untitled biopic about Howard Hughes adapted from Richard Hack's biography Hughes: The Private Diaries, Memos and Letters [116]
A film adaptation of Thomas Thompson's novel Serpentine [117][118][119]
A film adaptation of Robert Silverberg's novel The Book of Skulls written by Jeff Davis and Terry Hayes [120][119][121]
The Man Who Kept Secrets, a biopic about Hollywood lawyer Sidney Korshak [122]
A film adaptation of Chris Greenhalgh's novel Coco and Igor starring Mads Mikkelsen and Marina Hands [123][124]
2010s A film adaptation of William Peter Blatty's novel Dimiter [125]
Trapped, an indie thriller set in Europe starring Demián Bichir [126][127][a]
I Am Wrath starring Nicolas Cage [129][130][131]
Mae, a biopic about actress Mae West starring Natasha Lyonne and Bette Midler [132][133][134]
A TV pilot based on his film To Live and Die in L.A. written by Robert Moresco [135][136][137]
Untitled Killer Joe spinoff TV series [135][138]
A film adaptation of Don Winslow's novel The Winter of Frankie Machine [139][140]

An LA Opera production of Wagner's Tannhäuser was announced by Friedkin, but a spokesperson revealed it had been delayed indefinitely.[67] Friedkin had also been set to direct the premiere of an opera titled An Inconvenient Truth to debut in 2011,[141] but he later departed from it when creative differences arose between him and the librettist.[142] In 2013, it was reported that he would helm a stage production of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party (which he had already directed as a feature film in 1968), for Geffen Playhouse.[143] A cast including Katie Amess, Frances Barber, Steven Berkoff, Tim Roth and Nick Ullett was assembled, but the production was soon postponed for an unknown reason, and never revived.[144]

Awards and nominations

Year Award Category Title Result Ref(s)
1972 Academy Award Best Director The French Connection Won [145]
Directors Guild of America Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Won [146]
Golden Globes Best Director Won [147]
1973 BAFTA Award Nominated [148]
1974 Academy Award The Exorcist Nominated [149]
Directors Guild of America Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Nominated [150]
Golden Globes Best Director Won [151]
1981 Razzie Awards Worst Director Cruising Nominated [152]
Worst Screenplay Nominated [152]
1986 Cognac Festival du Film Policier Audience Award To Live and Die in L.A. Won [citation needed]
1988 Deauville Film Festival Critics Award Rampage Nominated [citation needed]
1991 Saturn Award George Pal Memorial Award Won [citation needed]
1993 Best Director Rampage Nominated [153]
1998 Directors Guild of America Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Specials 12 Angry Men Nominated [154]
Primetime Emmy Awards Best Director Nominated [155]
1999 Saturn Award President's Award Won [156]
Empire Awards Movie Masterpiece Award The Exorcist Won [157]
2000 Palm Beach International Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award Won [158]
2006 Cannes Film Festival FIPRESCI Bug Won [159]
2007 Munich Film Festival CineMerit Award Won [160]
Sitges - Catalan International Film Festival Time-Machine Honorary Award Won [161]
2009 Locarno International Film Festival Leopard of Honor Won [162]
2011 Venice Film Festival Golden Lion Killer Joe Nominated [163]
Golden Mouse Won [164]
2013 Belgian Film Critics Association Grand Prix Nominated [165]
Saturn Award Best Director Nominated [166][167]
Lifetime Award Won [168]
Venice Film Festival Special Lion for Lifetime Achievement Won [169]


  • Friedkin, William. The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2013. ISBN 978-0-06-177512-3
  • Friedkin, William. Conversations at the American Film Institute With the Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation. George Stevens, Jr., ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. ISBN 978-0-307-27347-5


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  1. ^ Friedkin said in a 2012 Reddit AMA that he was working on a thriller from an original story of his to be filmed in Europe in January 2013.[128]

Further reading

  • Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-And Rock 'N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998. ISBN 0-684-80996-6
  • Claggett, Thomas D. William Friedkin: Films of Aberration, Obsession, and Reality. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 2003. ISBN 0-89950-262-8
  • Derry, Charles, ed. Dark Dreams 2.0: A Psychological History of the Modern Horror Film From the 1950s to the 21st Century. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2009. ISBN 978-0-7864-3397-1
  • Edmonds, I. G. and Mimura, Reiko. The Oscar Directors. San Diego: A.S. Barnes, 1980. ISBN 0-498-02444-X
  • Emery, Robert J., ed. The Directors: In Their Own Words. Vol. 2. New York: TV Books, 1999. ISBN 1-57500-129-2
  • Hamm, Theodore. Rebel and a Cause: Caryl Chessman and the Politics of the Death Penalty in Postwar California, 1948–1974. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2001. ISBN 0-520-22427-2
  • Segaloff, Nat. Hurricane Billy: The Stormy Life and Films of William Friedkin. New York: Morrow, 1990. ISBN 0-688-07852-4
  • Stevens, Jr., George, ed. Conversations at the American Film Institute With the Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. ISBN 978-0-307-27347-5
  • Wakeman, John. World Film Directors, 1945–1985. New York: Wilson, 1988. ISBN 0-8242-0757-2
  • Walker, Elsie M. and Johnson, David T., eds. Conversations With Directors: An Anthology of Interviews From 'Literature/Film Quarterly'. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8108-6122-0
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William Friedkin
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