One of New Hollywood's most successful wunderkinder in the early '70s, William Friedkin suffered a precipitous fall from the box-office firmament in the late '70s, punctuated by the controversial cop film Cruising (1980). Nevertheless, Friedkin managed to keep his career alive, while the lasting impact of seminal horror film The Exorcist (1973) was confirmed by its enormously successful reissue in 2000. Raised in a Chicago slum, the young Friedkin fell in with a bad crowd, but his mother set him straight and Friedkin finished high school. Unable to afford college, Friedkin got a job in the mailroom at Chicago's WGN TV station. A budding cinephile who especially loved Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (1952), Friedkin's ambition to become a director was stoked by his first viewing of Citizen Kane (1941) while working at WGN. By his early twenties, Friedkin was directing live television and making documentaries. After spending the '50s helming, in his own estimation, over 2,000 TV programs, Friedkin made a splash on the film festival circuit in the early '60s with his documentary The People vs. Paul Crump (1962), garnering several festival prizes and the eventual commutation of the title subject's death sentence. Producer David L. Wolper offered Friedkin a job in Hollywood and Friedkin headed west in 1965. After making several documentaries for Wolper and directing episodes of TV's The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Friedkin broke into fiction features with the Sonny Bono and Cher vehicle Good Times (1967). Though Good Times was not a success, the brash tyro was tapped to direct the Norman Lear-scripted vaudeville period piece The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968). Despite moments of charm, The Night They Raided Minsky's did not popularly justify its then-generous budget. Nevertheless, Friedkin forged ahead with adaptations of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party (1968) and Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band (1970). While neither lived up to Friedkin's movie prodigy reputation, The Boys in the Band distinguished itself as the first Hollywood movie exclusively about gay men. On the verge of never living up to his press, Friedkin took to heart his then-potential father-in-law Howard Hawks' comments about making crowd-pleasing action pictures rather than arty, psychological studies. Cutting any scenes that slowed the pace, and returning to his documentary roots, Friedkin adapted the true crime best-seller The French Connection (1971) with streetwise élan. Shot on location in New York City with documentary-style mobile cameras, The French Connection was at once a timely story about cynical cops as brutal as their drug dealer prey -- complete with star Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle mercilessly shooting a man in the back -- and a thrilling action movie. The French Connection became a critically acclaimed hit, influencing the look of cop movies and TV series for years to come. Earning eight Oscar nominations, The French Connection went on to win the awards for Best Editing, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Picture, and Best Director, turning age-fudging Friedkin into the youngest winner to date. Friedkin's documentary experience, as well as the infamous attitude that prompted more than one wag to call him "Wild Billy," also convinced author William Peter Blatty that he could do justice to the potentially difficult adaptation of Blatty's best-selling Satanic possession thriller The Exorcist (1973). Though the production went over schedule and budget, and was plagued by mysterious accidents, The Exorcist handsomely rewarded the effort when it debuted during the 1973 Christmas season to long lines and eager crowds. Combining a starkly realist view of the supernatural with unprecedented, stomach-churning special effects and a barely veiled terror of feminine sexuality, The Exorcist reportedly caused audience members to wretch and faint, going on to break box-office records and spawn a horror revival. Though The Exorcist earned ten Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Director, this time the Academy preferred The Sting's (1973) lighter fare. Joining the creatively autonomous, profit-sharing Directors' Company in 1972, Friedkin quit the venture in disgust in 1974 (without ever contributing a movie) after the back-to-back failures of fellow Directors Francis Ford Coppola's lauded The Conversation (1974) and Peter Bogdanovich's Daisy Miller (1974). Friedkin had enough clout regardless to start sinking his career with his follow-up to The Exorcist, Sorcerer (1977). A stylish, if pointless, remake of The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer was an exorbitantly expensive vanity flop; The Brink's Job (1978) failed as well. Friedkin's return to New York cop stories with Cruising (1980) did not bode well either. A sordid, ambiguous film about a gay serial killer starring Al Pacino as the sexually confused cop on his trail, Cruising provoked furious protest from New York's gay community, who tried to shut down the production. Plagued by bad reviews as well as bad publicity, Cruising bombed. Though Friedkin suffered a mild heart attack in 1981, he returned to work soon after he recovered. Friedkin redeemed himself critically, if not financially, with To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). Pitting William L. Petersen's sleazy Secret Service agent against Willem Dafoe's slick, psychotic counterfeiter, and featuring a car chase that (almost) trumps The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A. earned praise for its grittiness and top-notch acting. The Reagan-era audience, however, was less amenable to Friedkin's pessimism. Friedkin's feature career drooped through such indifferent genre works as Rampage (1987) and The Guardian (1990). Finally settling into a durable marriage in 1991 to his fourth wife, Paramount chief Sherry Lansing, and tempering his professional behavior, Friedkin made the respectable basketball movie Blue Chips (1994) and managed to emerge relatively unscathed from the squalid Joe Eszterhas fiasco Jade (1995). Returning to TV again, Friedkin's cable remake of tense jury story 12 Angry Men (1997), starring George C. Scott and Jack Lemmon, brought Friedkin his best reviews in years and garnered six Emmy nominations. Admitting, "I was arrogant beyond my talent," in 2000, Friedkin hoped that his Samuel L. Jackson-Tommy Lee Jones military drama Rules of Engagement (2000) would be his first hit since the '70s. The release of The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen (2000), featuring 11 minutes of additional footage including Linda Blair's crab walk, surpassed Friedkin's recent work and overtook the 1998 re-release of Grease as the second most popular reissue to date after the Star Wars trilogy. The success of The Exorcist's re-release helped jump-start the production of the prequel Exorcist: The Beginning (2003), directed by Friedkin's New Hollywood cohort Paul Schrader. Friedkin's next directorial assignment of his own, however, proved to be another disappointment. Though it starred acting heavyweights Benicio del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones, and earned a modicum of praise for the skillfully directed action sequences, The Hunted (2003) suffered from a thin story that bore a striking resemblance to First Blood (1982), and failed to attract a substantial audience willing to watch del Toro and Jones go mano a mano in the woods. In 2006 he adapted Tracy Letts claustrophobic psychological thriller Bug. He directed an episode of CSI in 2007, and participated in a 2009 documentary about his groundbreaking film The Boys in the Band. In 2012 he released Killer Joe, another collaboration with Tracy Letts.
Biography by Lucia Bozzola
- Got his start in the entertainment industry working in the mail room of a Chicago TV station, where he quickly rose through the ranks to the role of director.
- Made his feature-film debut in 1967 with the Sonny and Cher musical spoof Good Times.
- Rose to fame with two back-to-back, Oscar-winning smashes, The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973).
- Formed the Directors Company with Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Ford Coppola in 1973; the partnership lasted just one year.
- Staged his first opera, Alban Berg's Wozzeck, in 1998 in Florence, Italy.