William Friedkin

William Friedkin

Friedkin in 2012 at the Deauville American Film Festival
Born (1935-08-29) August 29, 1935
Chicago, Illinois, US
Occupation Director, producer, screenwriter
Years active 1965–present
Spouse(s) Jeanne Moreau (1977–1979)
Lesley-Anne Down (1982–1985)
Kelly Lange (1987–1990)
Sherry Lansing (1991–present)

William Friedkin (born August 29, 1935)[1] is an American film director, producer and screenwriter best known for directing The French Connection in 1971 and The Exorcist in 1973; for the former, he won the Academy Award for Best Director. Some of his other films include Sorcerer, Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A., Jade, Rules of Engagement, The Hunted, Bug, and Killer Joe.

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 immigrants from Ukraine.[2] His grandparents, parents, and other relatives fled Ukraine during a particularly violent anti-Jewish pogrom in 1903.[3] 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.[4] Friedkin was not a serious student and barely received grades good enough to graduate,[5] which he did at the age of 16.[6] According to Friedkin, this was because of social promotion and not because he was bright.[7]

Friedkin began going to movies as a teenager,[4] and has cited Citizen Kane as one of his key influences. Several sources claim that Friedkin saw this motion picture as a teenager,[8] 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.[9] 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 his Second City documentary A Tale of Two Cities, 1960's Harvest of Shame, also were important in his developing sense of cinema.[4]

He began working in the mail room at WGN-TV immediately after high school.[10] Within two years (at the age of 18),[11] he started his directorial career doing live television shows and documentaries.[12] His efforts included The People vs. Paul Crump (made with Bill Butler in 1962) which won an award at the San Francisco International Film Festival and contributed to the commutation of Crump's death sentence.[11][13] Its success helped Friedkin get a job with producer David L. Wolper.[11]


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".[14] Hitchcock admonished Friedkin for not wearing a tie while directing.[15]

In 1965 Friedkin moved to Hollywood and two years later released his first feature film, Good Times starring Sonny and Cher. 'Which I am telling you, is unwatchable.'[16] Several other "art" films followed, including the adaptation of Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band and most notably The Birthday Party, based on an unpublished screenplay by Harold Pinter, which he adapted from his own play. Friedkin, however, did not want to be known as an art house director, but rather for action and serious drama through stories about an America upended by crime, hypocrisy, the occult, and amorality. All of which he mounted up into his films to reflect what was going on in an America that was changing in the wake of Vietnam, the Sexual Revolution, and Watergate.

In 1971, his The French Connection was released to wide critical acclaim. 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 the Best Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing.

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.[17] But Friedkin's later movies did not achieve the same success. Sorcerer (1977), a $22 million American remake of the French classic 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.[18]

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.[19]

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,[20] although he later denied this.[21]

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.[22] 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."

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.[23] 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.[24] He has been working 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 has been eager to adapt the story for the last three years.

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 favorable reviews from critics.

In April 2013 Friedkin published a memoir, The Friedkin Connection.[25] He was presented with a lifetime achievement award at the 70th Venice International Film Festival in September.[26]

Unfilmed Projects

Friedkin has been, over the years, linked to an array of unfilmed projects. Ranging from an account of the Florence Maybrick murder trial, Battle Grease,[27] to an adaptation of the Frank De Felitta suspense novel, Sea Trial,[28] the horror thriller "A Safe Darkness," the cop thriller "Bump City", and to the UFO thriller "The Devil's Triangle".[29]


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. [30]

Personal life

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.[39] 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.[40]

Friedkin and his second wife, Lesley-Anne Down, also had a son, Jack, born in 1983.[34] Friedkin is an agnostic.[41]

Filmography (as director)

Year Title Notes
1967 Good Times
1968 Birthday Party, TheThe Birthday Party
Night They Raided Minsky's, TheThe Night They Raided Minsky's
1970 Boys in the Band, TheThe Boys in the Band
1971 French Connection, TheThe French Connection 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 Exorcist, TheThe Exorcist 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 Also Producer
1978 Brink's Job, TheThe Brink's Job
1980 Cruising Also Writer
Nominated - Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director
Nominated - Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Screenplay
1983 Deal of the Century
1985 To Live and Die in L.A. Also Writer
The Twilight Zone TV series - directed season 1, episode 4 segment Nightcrawlers
1986 C.A.T. Squad (a.k.a. Stalking Danger) TV
Also Producer
1987 Rampage Also Producer/Writer
Nominated — Saturn Award for Best Direction
Nominated — Deauville Film Festival Critics Award
1988 C.A.T. Squad: Python Wolf TV
Also Producer
1990 Guardian, TheThe Guardian Also Writer
1994 Blue Chips
Jailbreakers TV
1995 Jade
1997 12 Angry Men TV
2000 Rules of Engagement
2003 Hunted, TheThe Hunted
2011 Killer Joe Competed in competition at the 68th Venice International Film Festival.[42]

Documentary credits


Year Award Category Title Result
1972 Academy Award Best Director The French Connection Won
Directors Guild of America Outstanding Directorial Achievement Won
Golden Globes Best Director Won
1973 BAFTA Award Best Director The French Connection Nominated
1974 Academy Award Best Director The Exorcist Nominated
Directors Guild of America Outstanding Directorial Achievement Nominated
Golden Globes Best Director Won
1981 Razzie Awards Worst Director Cruising Nominated
Worst Screenplay Nominated
1986 Cognac Festival du Film Policier Audience Award To Live in Die in L.A. Won
1988 Deauville Film Festival Critics Award Rampage Nominated
1991 Saturn Award George Pal Memorial Award Won
1993 Saturn Award Best Director Rampage Nominated
1998 Directors Guild of America Outstanding Directorial Achievement 12 Angry Men Nominated
Primetime Emmy Awards Best Director Nominated
1999 Saturn Award President's Award Won
Empire Awards Movie Masterpiece Award The Exorcist Won
2000 Palm Beach International Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award Won
2006 Cannes Film Festival FIPRESCI Bug Won
2007 Munich Film Festival CineMerit Award Won
Catalonian International Film Festival Time-Machine Honorary Award Won
2009 Locarno International Film Festival Leopard of Honor Won
2011 Venice Film Festival Golden Lion Killer Joe Nominated
Golden Mouse Won
2013 Belgian Film Critics Association Grand Prix Nominated
Saturn Award Best Director Nominated
Lifetime Achievement Award Won
Venice Film Festival Special Lion Won


  1. 1 2 3 4 Biskind, p. 200.
  2. Pfefferman, Naomi. "'Killer Joe's' William Friedkin: 'I Could Have Been a Very Violent Person'." Jewish Journal. August 2, 2012. Accessed 2013-04-29.
  3. Friedkin, The Friedkin Connection, p. 1.
  4. 1 2 3 Biskind, p. 201.
  5. Segaloff, p. 25.
  6. Wakeman, p. 372.
  7. Friedkin, Conversations at the American Film Institute..., p. 186.
  8. Emery, p. 237; Claggett, p. 3.
  9. Friedkin, The Friedkin Connection, p. 9.
  10. Stevens, p. 184.
  11. 1 2 3 Walker and Johnson, p. 15.
  12. Derry, p. 361; Edmonds and Mimura, p. 211.
  13. Hamm, p. 86-87.
  14. "Off Season 1965". IMDb. p. 2. Retrieved September 8, 2009.
  15. "Vertigo: The Legacy Series" Universal, 2008
  16. The Directors: William Friedkin
  17. Bart, Peter (2011-05-09). Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob, (and Sex). Weinstein Books.
  18. Segaloff, Nat (1990-01-01). Hurricane Billy: The Stormy Life and Films of William Friedkin. New York: William Morrow & Co. ISBN 9780688078522.
  19. Biskind, p. 413.
  20. William, Linda Ruth (2005). The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema. Indiana University Press. p. 140. ISBN 0-253-21836-5.
  21. William Friedkin Interview on YouTube
  22. "EXCL: Bug Director William Friedkin".
  23. "Crazy by William Peter Blatty", authorsontourlive.com, June 30, 2010
  24. Friedkin, William (July 6, 2010). "A Quiet Little Thriller". The Huffington Post. Retrieved September 21, 2016.
  25. Friedkin, William. The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2013.
  26. "William Friedkin to receive Venice honour". BBC News.
  27. "William Friedkin (II)". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-10-26.
  28. Hefner, Hugh M., ed. (1981-01-01). Playboy Magazine, July 1981. Playboy.
  29. Clagett, Thomas D. (2002-08-01). William Friedkin: Films of Aberration, Obsession and Reality (2nd Revised ed.). Los Angeles, Calif.: Silman-James Press. ISBN 9781879505612.
  30. "William Friedkin Collection". Academy Film Archive.
  31. Martin, Judith. "Personalities." Washington Post. February 9, 1977, p. B3.
  32. "Filing for Divorce." Newsweek. June 25, 1979, p. 99.
  33. Sanders, Richard. "Director Billy Friedkin and Lesley-Anne Down Make a Home Movie-Divorce Hollywood Style." People. September 2, 1985. Accessed 2013-04-29.
  34. 1 2 "Names in the News." Associated Press. August 15, 1985.
  35. "Director William Friedkin Marries News Anchor Kelly Lange." Ocala Star-Banner. July 29, 1987, p. 2A. Accessed 2013-04-29.
  36. Ryon, Ruth. "Still Anchored in the Hills." Los Angeles Times. May 31, 1992. Accessed 2013-04-29.
  37. Anderson, Susan Heller. "Chronicle." New York Times. July 11, 1991. Accessed 2013-04-29.
  38. Teetor, Paul. "'The Exorcist' Director William Friedkin Tells All in His No-Bullshit Memoir." Los Angeles Times. April 11, 2013. Accessed 2013-04-29.
  39. Segaloff, p. 98.
  40. "William Friedkin – Biography." Movies.Yahoo.com. 2013, accessed 2013-04-29; "Failing Better Every Time." Sunday Independent. July 1, 2012.
  41. The Exorcist & The French Connection Dir. William Friedkin on Religion, Crime & Film on YouTube
  42. "Venezia 68: International competition of feature films". Venice. Retrieved August 28, 2011.


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