Oscar-winning filmmaker William Friedkin, who directed The Exorcist and The French Connection, died on Monday in Los Angeles. He was 87.
Born in Chicago, Friedkin grew up playing basketball at Senn High School, where he apparently wasn’t much of a student. He ultimately found his way to journalism, working in the mailroom of local TV station WGN, which led him to documentary filmmaking, including the award-winning film The People vs. Paul Crump. That film earned him jobs leading the documentary division at WBKB and directing docs for producer David L. Wolper.
Eventually, Friedkin graduated from docs and directed an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the mid-’60s before landing his first feature, the 1967 movie Good Times starring Sonny and Cher. Friedkin directed three more movies — The Birthday Party, The Night They Raided Minsky’s, and The Boys in the Band — before making what would be his breakout film, The French Connection.
The classic crime movie starred Gene Hackman as a ruthless cop named Popeye Doyle and featured an incredible car chase that’s still taught in film schools today. Not only did it win Best Picture and Best Actor, but it also won Friedkin the Oscar for Best Director. He would be nominated again just two years later for his adaptation of William Peter Blatty‘s novel The Exorcist.
That horror film became a cultural sensation, grossing a head-spinning $441 million worldwide, helping to usher in the age of the blockbuster and launching a franchise that continues to this day, with The Exorcist: Believer slated for release this October, and The Exorcist: Deceiver scheduled for April 18, 2025.
The Exorcist star Ellen Burstyn, who is reprising her role in Believer, paid tribute to Friedkin on Monday, offering the following statement:
“My friend Bill Friedkin was an original; smart, cultured, fearless, and wildly talented. On the set, he knew what he wanted, would go to any length to get it, and was able to let it go if he saw something better happening. He was undoubtedly a genius.”
“I am personally indebted to William Friedkin and saddened by his loss,” The Exorcist: Believer producer Jason Blum said in a statement. “More than any other filmmaker, he changed both the way directors approached horror films and also the perception of horror films in the broader culture. We are deeply saddened to hear of his passing and intensely grateful for the body of work he has left behind.”
Both The Exorcist and The French Connection are considered classics that remain hugely influential within their respective genres thanks to their energy and fast-paced editing, respectively.
Friedkin completed one of Hollywood’s great trifectas by following those movies with 1977’s Sorcerer, which is a tremendous feat of filmmaking (though not a hugely successful one) that Friedkin all but willed onto the screen with the help of his devoted cast and crew — who didn’t always love him, mind you. Friedkin could be surly and abrasive, to say the least. But those qualities were also why a lot of people loved him. He was a no-bullshit kind of guy, and certainly among the last of a dying breed, for better or worse.
After 1978’s thriller The Brinks Job, Friedkin directed the controversial serial killer thriller Cruising starring Al Pacino, and I consider that movie a landmark in queer cinema.
Sandwiched between the comedy Deal of the Century (1983) and the crime drama Rampage (1987) was 1985’s memorable crime thriller To Live and Die in L.A. starring the great William Petersen and Willem Dafoe. The ’90s were, shall we say, less memorable for Friedkin — the less said about The Guardian and Jade, the better — though my 10th birthday party was a screening of the college basketball drama Blue Chips, which still holds up thanks to a committed Nick Nolte performance, in my opinion.
The next 11 years saw Friedkin working in “master” mode with a solid group of actors. The military-themed legal drama Rules of Engagement starred Samuel L. Jackson and Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones, the latter of whom returned to star opposite Benecio del Toro in the knife-driven thriller The Hunted. And yes, I just typed “knife-driven thriller.” How cool is that?
Friedkin followed that one with a pair of Tracy Letts adaptations — Bug (2006) starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, which still makes my skin crawl, and the NC-17-rated Killer Joe (2011), which features a killer turn from Matthew McConaughey. It’s crazy to think that Killer Joe was Friedkin’s most recent narrative feature — he also directed the 2017 exorcism doc The Devil and Father Amorth — though I’m grateful it won’t be his last, as much as I liked it.
No, Friedkin returns to the military courtroom in just a few weeks with The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, a remake of the Humphrey Bogart classic that will premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Kiefer Sutherland stars alongside Jason Clarke and the late Lance Reddick.
On the TV side, Friedkin’s credits include The Twilight Zone, Tales From the Crypt, and CSI, plus the excellent 1997 remake of 12 Angry Men starring George C. Scott, Jack Lemmon, James Gandolfini, and Tony Danza.
Friedkin married famed studio exec Sherry Lansing in 1991 and they’ve been together ever since. He was previously married to newscaster Kelly Lange and actors Lesley-Anne Down and Jeanne Moreau. He is survived by Lansing as well as two sons.
If you’ve ever seen an interview with the always-outspoken Friedkin, such as his chat with Nicolas Winding-Refn, you know that he was a true original. We lost a good one today, folks. May the Devil forgive him and leave him be. R.I.P.