Having emerged from the era of 1950s live television, director John Frankenheimer quickly became a Hollywood wunderkind after directing several highly-regarded films before suffering a series of setbacks that nearly crippled his career, only to have one of the truly great comebacks of American cinema. Frankenheimer began his career directing some 150-odd live television dramas in the 1950s and early 1960s, contributing memorable installments to anthology series like "Playhouse 90" (CBS, 1956-1960). Though he made his feature debut in 1957 with "The Young Stranger," he began his feature career proper with "The Young Savages" (1961), which began a successful five-picture collaboration with actor Burt Lancaster. The pair reunited for one of Frankenheimer's most well-received films, "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962), though the best for the director was yet to come. With "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), Frankenheimer directed a chilling thriller that not only held up over the ensuing decades, but entered the pantheon of true Hollywood classics. Frankenheimer followed with "Seven Days in May" (1964), a frighteningly realistic White House coup-de-tat that reportedly received behind the scene support from President John F. Kennedy. Following lesser known films like "The Train" (1965) and "Grand Prix" (1966), as well as the tragic assassination of close friend Robert F. Kennedy, Frankenheimer entered a dark period marred by depression, alcoholism and an inability to direct a hit film. Though he saw some success with "The French Connection II" (1975) and "Black Sunday" (1977), Frankenheimer floundered throughout the 1970s and 1980s, before rejuvenating his career on the small screen in the 1990s, winning four Emmy Awards in five years for directing "Against the Wall" (HBO, 1994), "The Burning Season" (HBO 1994), "Andersonville" (TNT, 1996) and "George Wallace" (TNT, 1997). The newfound success allowed him to make a triumphant return to features with "Ronin" (1998), an old school Cold War spy thriller that gave Frankenheimer one last success on the big screen and cemented his reputation as the undisputed master of the political thriller.
Born on Feb. 19, 1930 in Malba, NY, Frankenheimer was raised by his father, Walter, a stock broker of German-Jewish origins, and his Irish-Catholic mother, Helen. Though he was introverted and socially awkward as a youth - his father sent him to a psychological institute to be tested when he was 17 - Frankenheimer was an excellent student, performing well at LaSalle Military Academy, where he was captain of the tennis team. He next attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where he earned a bachelor's in literature. During his last two years at Williams, he discovered acting and spent his summer vacations performing summer stock at the Highland Playhouse in Falmouth, MA. Following his graduation in 1951, Frankenheimer joined the Air Force and served in its newly formed film squadron, where he directed service films during the Korean War. Having found his life's ambition, Frankenheimer left his Air Force film unit and talked his way into an assistant director's job at CBS, where he spent the next several years establishing himself as one of the most brilliant talents to emerge from television's vaunted Golden Age.
Frankenheimer helmed more than 150 live dramas between 1954 and 1960, with such prestigious contributions as "The Last Tycoon," starring Jack Palance; "For Whom the Bell Tolls," with Jason Robards, Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach; the original "Days of Wine and Roses," starring Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie; "The Turn of the Screw," with Ingrid Bergman; and "The Browning Version," which featured Sir John Gielgud's first television appearance. He soon made a seamless transition to feature films with "The Young Stranger" (1957), a sensitive father-son drama about a movie executive (James Daly) who struggles in a strained relationship with his out-of-control son (James MacArthur), which was an expanded version of a one-hour TV drama he had directed called "Deal a Blow" (1955). Frankenheimer returned to television, directing several memorable episodes of the anthology series "Playhouse 90" (CBS, 1956-1960), including "The Comedian" (1957) with Mickey Rooney and written by Rod Serling. By the turn of the next decade, Frankenheimer returned to feature directing with "The Young Savages" (1961), an urban drama centered on an assistant district attorney (Burt Lancaster), who investigates the stabbing death of a young Puerto Rican boy by three juvenile delinquents. The film marked Frankenheimer's permanent move into features while inaugurating a collaboration with Lancaster that spanned five films.
Frankenheimer and Lancaster next joined forces on "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962), a triumphant redemption drama about Robert Stroud (Lancaster), a real-life prisoner serving a life sentence who began helping injured sparrows in the yard and later became a noted ornithologist, making several contributions to avian pathology while authoring two books. Though portrayed as mild-mannered by Lancaster, the real Stroud was widely considered to be a foul-tempered and aggressive person who was serving time for killing a prison guard after having already been convicted of manslaughter. Despite some outrage over Stroud's characterization, the movie earned four Academy Award nominations, including one for Lancaster's performance. Frankenheimer followed with what became his seminal film, "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), a stark and tense political thriller about a U.S. Army hero (Laurence Harvey) returned from the Korean War who has been secretly brainwashed by the Communists to assassinate a presidential nominee. But when his old army buddy (Frank Sinatra) starts to think something is wrong, the plot begins to unravel, leading to the revelation that his right-wing and rather incestuous mother (Angele Lansbury) was a key player in the assassination attempt. Both chilling and brilliant, the Cold War thriller earned Lansbury an Academy Award nomination while giving Frankenheimer a place in cinema history for directing a true Hollywood classic.
Having earned himself considerable clout, Frankenheimer followed with another taut Cold War thriller, "Seven Days in May" (1964), which starred Burt Lancaster as an army general whose plot to overthrow an unpopular president (Frederic March) is discovered by a Pentagon colonel (Kirk Douglas). With a script penned by Rod Serling and an ominous score composed by Jerry Goldsmith, "Seven Days in May" presented a chilling situation that even President John F. Kennedy - who reportedly personally urged Frankenheimer to make the film - thought was a potential reality. No sooner had he completed the film when Lancaster called him to Paris to replace Arthur Penn as director of "The Train" (1965), a near-flawlessly executed adventure story about a Nazi train smuggling works of art from Paris to Berlin during the French liberation. His first taste of failure came with "Seconds" (1966), which starred Rock Hudson as a frustrated middle-aged businessman who manages to transform his identity with the help of science, only to find himself trapped in a life he realizes he never wanted. Because of the difficulty of its premise, the film initially flopped at the box office, though it later grew into something of a cult favorite over the years.
Now in demand as an action director, Frankenheimer went on to helm "Grand Prix" (1966), which combined the director's love of auto racing with his love of film. Though thin on plot, the movie was full of high-octane action in its depiction of a cross-continent road race and featured an international cast headed by James Garner, Yves Montand and Toshiro Mifune. "Grand Prix" was also Frankenheimer's first film in color and earned a considerable sum at the box office, fixing a reputation damaged by his previous film. But things began to unravel for Frankenheimer in June 1968 when his close relationship with Robert F. Kennedy ended in tragedy. At the time, he was serving as Kennedy's media advisor, as well as opening up his Malibu home to the popular senator. In a last minute change of plans, Frankenheimer drove Kennedy to the Ambassador Hotel in downtown L.A., where the presidential hopeful was gunned down by Sirhan Sirhan. The tragic event plunged Frankenheimer into a deep depression which was exacerbated by an already growing problem with alcohol. Practically overnight, the seeds to the wunderkind's destruction were sown.
Frankenheimer and his third wife moved to Europe, where he continued making films like "The Fixer" (1968), "The Gypsy Moths" (1969) and "The Horsemen 1971), though none reached the quality of his previous work. He went on to direct a version of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" (1973), one of Frankenheimer's personal favorites which few saw despite good reviews. He showed signs of box-office life with the sequel "French Connection II" (1975), which told the continuing story of Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman), who leaves Manhattan for Marseilles hot on the trail of heroin kingpin Frog One (Fernando Rey). A mere shadow of the Oscar-winning 1971 original, the sequel proved successful enough for Frankenheimer to win his next job. His career rejuvenation continued with the commercial success of "Black Sunday" (1977), an action thriller about a deranged pilot (Bruce Dern) determined to detonate the Super Bowl with a bomb-laden blimp. Smart and terrifyingly realistic, "Black Sunday" was one of his last major hits; what followed was almost two decades of mediocrity that seemed unlikely to have come from the man who had directed "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Seven Days in May."
While quality scripts failed to come his way, Frankenheimer slipped into obscurity while also suffering from a debilitating addiction to alcohol that nearly caused cirrhosis of the liver. While he managed to quit alcohol in the early 1980s, the director was unable to pull himself out his career doldrums, helming such fare as the horror schlock-fest "Prophesy" (1979), the cheap martial arts actioner, "The Challenge" (1982), and the admirable, but ultimately failed political thriller ""The Holcroft Covenant" (1985). Frankenheimer directed another film he was proud of with an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's "52 Pick-Up" (1986), but the blackmail crime thriller starring Roy Scheider and Kelly Preston failed to generate much business at the box office. Turning back to television, Frankenheimer adopted the pseudonym Alan Smithee to divorce himself from the action-adventure yarn, "Riviera" (ABC, 1987). He ran into problems on the action thriller, "Dead Bang" (1989), thanks to that film's star, Don Johnson, personifying the temperamental star cliché. Amidst numerous critical reviews rebuking Frankenheimer's decision to make such a trivial film, "Dead Bang" flopped at the box office, making any sort of feature film comeback nearly impossible. Though he found a renewed interest following a 1988 re-release of "The Manchurian Candidate," Frankenheimer struggled to regain his footing in the feature world.
Following the familiar Cold War-themed spy thriller "The Fourth Wall" (1989) and the rather forgettable "Year of the Gun" (1991), Frankenheimer went back to television in an effort to rekindle some of the magic of his early career. After directing an episode of "Tales from the Crypt" (HBO, 1992), he helmed the made-for-cable movie "Against the Wall" (HBO, 1994), which told the story about the 1971 Attica Prison uprisings from a hostage's point of view. The small screen movie finally provided Frankenheimer with the best material he had seen in decades. Although he had received five Emmy nominations for his directing live television early in his career, "Against the Wall" earned him his first statue for Outstanding Directing. With renewed career vigor, Frankenheimer found new life on the small screen, directing "The Burning Season" (HBO 1994), a biopic about South American activist Chico Mendes (Raul Julia), which earned him a second straight Emmy Award for directing. He found himself in the winner's circle at the Emmys again for "Andersonville" (TNT, 1996), a two-part miniseries about the notorious Civil War prison camp. Going for the cycle, Frankenheimer won his fourth directing Emmy in five years with "George Wallace" (1997), a reflective and not-unflattering look at the famed Alabama governor and staunch segregationist (Gary Sinese) whose bid for the presidency abruptly ended when permanently disabled by an assassin's bullet.
Because of his resurgence on television, Frankenheimer was given opportunity to redeem himself on the big screen. He once again came to the rescue and replaced an original director, this time Richard Stanley, on "The Island of Dr. Moreau" (1996), sorting out the chaos and enabling its release, while dealing with two of Hollywood's most difficult actors, Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. Despite the critical and financial drubbing that movie received, Frankenheimer largely escaped criticism. He next directed "Ronin" (1998), a triumphant return to the big screen that ultimately proved to be his last truly great film. A sly spy thriller set in a post-Cold War world written by David Mamet, "Ronin" followed a band of international operatives (including Robert De Niro, Jean Reno and Stellan Skarsgard) in a nonstop pursuit of an oddly-shaped aluminum suitcase, the contents of which remain unknown. Uncluttered by boring details, the film, showed off its extreme stylishness, including several high-action car chases and shootouts, which allowed Frankenheimer to put his bold visual style on display full-tilt. The man who had redefined the suspense film with "The Manchurian Candidate" and who had refused to give up his quest for the elusive big-budget picture, had finally weighed in with a movie that displayed his mastery of the medium.
Though he had found his form with "Ronin," Frankenheimer took a step back with his next feature, "Reindeer Games" (2000). Starring Ben Affleck as a recently released burglar who aims to spend his freedom with the woman of his dreams (Charlize Theron), the crime thriller - which featured that old cliché of one last heist - boasted some well-choreographed action sequences, but ultimately suffered from poor critical reviews and a lack of audience interest. But "Reindeer Games" proved to be a temporary misstep, as Frankenheimer returned to the small screen for "Path to War" (HBO, 2002), an intriguing look into the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (Michael Gambon), whose heralded domestic agenda suffers under the weight of the Vietnam War. Also starring Alec Baldwin as Robert McNamara, Tom Skerritt as General Westmoreland and Felicity Huffman as Lady Bird Johnson, "Path to War" earned vast critical praise and several award nominations, including one for another Emmy. But "Path to War" ultimately proved to be Frankenheimer's swan song. Just two months after the movie aired on HBO, the director suffered a sudden and debilitating stroke following spinal surgery that ended his life. At the time, Frankenheimer was scheduled to direct the prequel to "The Exorcist" (1973). He was 72.