I spent a couple of afternoons, separated by 23 years, with the great, perennially underrated Sidney Lumet, the dean of New York City directors. From our first meeting in his office at the Directors Guild of America Building on 57th Street to the later one at a since-razed building on W. 54th St. that also housed a state unemployment office, Lumet was the most frank and unpretentious of all of the many directors I've encountered. During the first interview, I asked if he we ever temped to take an acting role, as Sidney Pollack had recently done in "Tootsie.'' Lumet said "the guys down the hall'' -- Bob Fosse, who tried to cast him in "All That Jazz'' and Robert Benton, who had offices on the same floor -- "have been trying to get me to act in their movies for years, but I have too many movies I want to make as a director.''
The second interview, which you can find here , was conducted in 2005 for what turned out to be his penultimate movie "Find Me Guilty'' -- a fact-based comedy about an accused mobster that deserved better reviews and better business. Below are excerpts from the 1993 interview that he gave me to promote "Daniel,'' another fascinating box-office failure that deserved to reach a wider audience. Both films are available on DVD.
For Sidney Lumet, "Daniel'' was a labor of love indeed. The director spent 12 years trying to interest various studios in filming "The Book of Daniel,'' E.L. Doctorow's powerful novel inspired by the 1953 execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been convicted of atomic-related espionage.
The finally get the picture made, Lumet waived his usual $1.5 million fee and worked for scale, as did all of the performers and crew members. Lumet, whose ability to bring in a picture on time and under budget has made him one of the most sought-after directors in the business, made "Daniel'' for an incredible $7.4 million -- between and a third and a half of the normal cost for a movie with elaborate locations that spans three decades, the 1930's to the 1960's.
"Daniel'' opened last week to the kind of mixed critical reception that has typically greeted the director's work. Lumet's career began with "12 Angry Men'' in 1957 and includes such popular/and or critical successes as '"Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' "The Pawnbroker,'' "Fail Safe,'' "Murder on the Orient Express,'' "Prince of the City,'' "Network'' and "The Verdict.'' He readily acknowledges he has directed his share of flips, most notably "Equus,'' "The Wiz'' and "Just Tell Me What You Want.''
The son of a veteran performer of the Yiddish stage, Lumet was born in 1924 in Philadelphia. He moved to New York -- where the bulk of his movies have been filmed -- and made his acting debut at the age of 5. Besides appearing on Broadway [in the original production of "Dead End,'' among other things], he turned up in a single motion picture -- "One-Third of a Nation'' (1939), which was filmed as the Astoria studios in Queens, where Lumet would make make much of ["The Wiz''] and "Daniel.'' After World War II [service], Lumet began working in television, directing hundreds of live dramas during the medium's early days.
Lumet operates out of the second floor of an unassuming office building [down the street from] Carnegie Hall. One recent afternoon, the short, wiry director pushed aside a plate of melon, put his sneakers-clad feet up on the desk, and held forth on the story behind "Daniel.'' He also reflected on his incredibly eclectic and prolific output of films, which seem to have only two common threads: uniformly excellent acting, and, in many cases, liberal social themes.
Why were you so determined to make "Daniel"?
There's somethng about Doctorow's work that's extraordinary to me. It's in "Ragtime,'' in "Loon Lake'' and it's what "Daniel'' is all about. He picks up these cataclysmic events, but when you come down to it, his novels are always about parents and children, and that's what I found so really moving.
Were you attracted by the political background of the book?
It was something I knew very well. Our picture never gets into any questions of guilt or innocence, and to this day, I don't know if the Rosenbergs were guilty. But I do know what whatever we did as a government is worse than what they did. I've often wondered why they had no support in this country. I remember no rallies for the Rosenbergs, no Rosenberg defense committee, none of those usual things. It was a decimated time.
Were you politically active then?
I was a good, solid, Jewish left-wing Democrat, and when the whole blacklist thing came, that not only affected me but certainly everybody I knew was in great trouble. The interesting thing is there was no political activity to become involved in. It had all come to a screeching halt after the Truman-Dewey election.
How did you come to cast Timothy Hutton in the title role? A WASP Californian is certainly an unlikely choice for a New York Jew.
When he was first suggested I said forget it. About three weeks later he showed up on my doorstep with a beard and long hair. I invited him in and we talked for about two hours and I thought he was extraordinary. Still I wasn't sure. So I gave him books on Marx, had him move in with a friend of mine, a rabbi. I took him to the Hasidic community in Williamsburg. I wanted him to get the whole cultural experience. After five or six weeks of this, he read again -- and in the meantime I had him work on his diction to get rid of his California hard R's -- and that was it.
The two children [in "Daniel''] are really amazing. How did you feel directing at the studio where you worked as a child?
That was the thing that scared me most. And the casting of them, that's where I went through thousands. I knew that after reading every kid actor, I could not take a professinal for the part of young Daniel...So we went to the music schools and the ballet schools. Ilan [Mitchell-Smith] came from the Joffrey Ballet. He read brilliantly, then terribly -- he was all over the place. I said it's a terrific risk but if we make it we've got something special. He's extraordinary. Working with them [Jena Greco plays his sister] was really the tensest work for me in the entire picture. This is just about the first time I've had a kid in a major part in any movie I've ever done.
Why? Did you have a bad experience as a child actor yourself?
No, I loved it. But I knew what I felt about the people I was working with, and a lot of it was very contemptuous and disbelieving and maybe it was a fear of exposing myself to that.
How do you manage to keep going from film to film when other directors make one movie every two or three years?
I've been working since I was 5 years old, and I don't understand not working. That seems incredibly self-indulgent to me. A lot of directors, when some success comes to them, they tend to get pretentions, they feel that every film has to be a masterpiece. I don't. If Can't do "Daniel,'' I do "Deathtrap.'' There's nothing wrong with melodrama.
If you work consistently, you get something out of every picture. "Murder on the Orient Express'' was a piece of fluff, but stylistically when I got done from a sheer craft point of view stood me in very good stead when I hit "Network.''
Why did you choose to do "The Verdict''? It seemed a lot more simplistic than most of your recent films, especially after the moral ambiguity of "Prince of the City"?
It's very important to do a melodrama every three or four pictures. Because when I do pieces like "Prince of the City'' or "Daniel,'' the introspective demands are so enormous that I've got to be careful. It's a way of avoiding pretentiousness. I like to get back to direct, simple storytelling on the most primitive level. The big thing in a piece like that is not to pour 10 quarts of water into a five-quart pail.
What is your favorite among your films?
I guess the ones I care about most are "Daniel'' and "Prince of the City.'' "Network' is a hell of a good movie, I like "Dog Day Afternoon'' and a couple of failures with Sean Connery, "The Offense'' and "The Hill.'' There are a lot of pictures I feel good about.
Are there films you feel bad about?
Oh, yeah. But I don't want to name them because it might seem a reflection on the people I worked with. There are six or seven and some of them were my failures. "The Group'' could have been a lot better movie, but I couldn't solve the problems stylistically; and I couldn't handle the humor in "Bye, Bye Braverman.''
How do you feel about "Fail Safe''?
I felt "Fail Safe'' was a real case of pouring 10 quarts of water into a five-quart pail. I saw it about two years ago and I was so embarrassed by the whole opening section, going into the psychology of the characters, all unneccesary. There's no reason why it couldn't have started out in the war room with the computers. It was a melodrama and I got too fancy with it.
What about your long-planned biography of Malcolm X?
I'm expecting a decision soon from Richard Pryor. Without him the picture will never be made; it's just too expensive and risky a project.