William Friedkin, Oscar-winning director of ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The French Connection,’ dead at 87

From right, William Friedkin, winner of the award for best achievement in directing for "The French Connection," Jane Fonda, winner of the best actress award for "Klute," Gene Hackman, winner of the best actor award for "The French Connection" and producer Philip D'Antoni, winner of the award for best picture for "The French Connection," at the Academy Awards in 1971 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/File)

LOS ANGELES — William Friedkin, the generation-defining director who brought a visceral realism to 1970s hits “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” and was quickly anointed one of Hollywood’s top directors when he was only in his 30s, has died. He was 87.

Friedkin, who won the best director Oscar for “The French Connection,” died Monday in Los Angeles, Marcia Franklin, his executive assistant for 24 years, told The Associated Press on behalf of his family and wife, former studio head Sherry Lansing. His son Cedric Friedkin told the AP he died after a long illness.


“He was role model to me and to (my brother) Jack,” Cedric Friedkin said. “He was a massive inspiration.”

He cemented his legacy early with “The French Connection,” which was based on a true story and deals with the efforts of maverick New York City police Detective James “Popeye” Doyle to track down Frenchman Fernando Rey, mastermind of a large drug pipeline funneling heroin into the United States. It contains one of the most thrilling chase scenes ever filmed.

Doyle, played by Gene Hackman in an Oscar-winning performance, barely misses making the arrest on a subway train, then hurries to his police car to follow the train as it emerges on an elevated railway. He races underneath, dodging cars, trucks and pedestrians, including a woman pushing a baby buggy, before abandoning the pursuit.

The movie, which was made for only $2 million, became a box office hit when it was released in 1971 and also won Academy Awards for best picture, screenplay and film editing and led critics to hail Friedkin, then just 32, as a leading member of a new generation of filmmakers.

He followed with an even bigger blockbuster, “The Exorcist,” released in 1973 and based on William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel about a 12-year-old girl possessed by the devil.

The harrowing scenes of the girl’s possession and a splendid cast, including Linda Blair as the girl, Ellen Burstyn as her mother and Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller as the priests who try to exorcise the devil from her, helped make the film a box-office sensation. It was so scary for its era that many viewers fled the theater before it was over and some reported being unable to sleep for days afterward.

“The Exorcist” received 10 Oscar nominations, including one for Friedkin as director, and won two, for Blatty’s script and for sound.

With that second success, Friedkin would go on to direct movies and TV shows well into the 21st century. But he would never again come close to matching the acclaim he’d received for those early works and gained a reputation for clashing with both actors and studio executives.

His 1977 film “Sorcerer,” a gangster thriller starring Roy Scheider was widely panned at the time and also failed with audiences. It’s since been reappraised by critics and has become a cult classic that Friedkin himself would continue to defend. In 2017, he told IndieWire that it’s the only of his films that he could still watch.

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