A rising young filmmaker who brought a humorous edge to his Hollywood work, TV producer-turned-movie director Ted Demme's career was abruptly cut short by his death in January 2002.
Born in New York City, Demme may have been a college athlete, but he preferred to follow his uncle Jonathan Demme's lead, entering the entertainment industry after school. Starting his career as a production assistant at MTV, Demme quickly made his mark as one of the creators of the trailblazing hit series Yo! MTV Raps in 1988. After honing his skills as a producer and music video director for MTV, Demme helmed his first feature, hip-hop comedy Who's the Man? (1993), and reached a key professional turning point when he directed comic Denis Leary's TV special No Cure for Cancer (1992).
Hitting it off with Leary and in tune with his hilariously caustic sensibility, Demme subsequently established his promise as a movie director when he teamed with Leary for his second feature, the acid comedy The Ref (1994). Starring Leary as a rough-edged cat burglar who gets entangled with a highly dysfunctional Connecticut family on Christmas Eve, The Ref earned kudos for Leary, Judy Davis, and up-and-comer Kevin Spacey's riotously sharp performances, and evolved into a sleeper hit on video and TV after a lackluster theatrical run. Although he continued to work in TV, directing episodes for the highly regarded series Homicide: Life in the Streets, Demme further burnished his movie reputation with the ensemble romantic comedy Beautiful Girls (1996). Inspired in part by The Deer Hunter's (1978) perceptive take on small town, working-class male friendship, Beautiful Girls' story of a Big Chill-esque (1983) reunion was enhanced by the superb young Hollywood cast, particularly Natalie Portman as the precocious object of Timothy Hutton's affection. As with The Ref, however, Beautiful Girls left more of an impression on critics than at the box office.
Reuniting with his favorite "bad boy" entertainer, Demme helmed Leary's TV special Lock N' Load (1997), and helped reveal that Leary had acting chops beyond comedy in the gritty street drama Monument Ave. (1998). Centering on Boston's Irish-American "mob," Monument Ave. starred Leary as a car thief suffering a crisis of conscience when too closely confronted with the corrupt relationship between the mob and the law. Monument Ave., though, garnered more attention at film festivals than theaters. After the comedy-drama Life (1999), starring Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy as two wrongly imprisoned lifers, failed to measure up to the popular clout of its stars, Demme drew more favorable attention for his TV work as one of the executive producers of the scathing insider comedy series Action (1999) and co-producer of the serious HBO film A Lesson Before Dying (1999). A 1940s drama about a black man wrongly sentenced to death, A Lesson Before Dying earned Demme an Emmy award.
Anxious to make a movie about American cocaine kingpin George Jung since Leary had turned him on to the story several years before, Demme's wish finally came to fruition as Blow (2001). Starring Johnny Depp as Jung, and shot and scored with great flair, Blow began as a zingy Goodfellas (1990)-meets-Boogie Nights (1997) account of Jung's 1970s rise before degenerating into an awkward attempt to render Jung as a sentimental hero who just loves his daughter. Still, Blow confirmed Demme's visual talents as well as his way with actors. Demme was in preproduction on the Ewan McGregor-Heath Ledger thriller Nautica, as well as working on an IFC documentary about 1970s American cinema, when he died of cardiac arrest after a celebrity basketball game on January 13, 2002. Demme's final completed project, A Decade Under the Influence (2003), was released a year after Demme's death. Co-directed by Richard LaGravenese, A Decade Under the Influence chronicled the artistic renaissance in 1970s Hollywood, paying tribute to the iconoclasts who helped to inspire Demme's own work as a filmmaker.