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Hall of Fame
December 04, 2017

John Frankenheimer: Hall of Fame Tribute

Libby Slate


Achieving success in either the television or feature film medium is a goal many aspire to, yet there are few who can claim distinction to. But when director John Frankenheimer died July 6 at age 72, he left a legacy of not one, but two esteemed television careers as well as a notable body of feature film work. From his beginnings in the golden age of live television programming through his politically-charged films of the ‘60s to a run of Emmy-winning cable films, Frankenheimer forged a career unlike any other.

The director — who died of a stroke resulting from complications of spinal surgery — logged 152 live television dramas, Playhouse 90, and other anthology shows before moving to films in the late ‘50s. And beginning in 1994, he won four consecutive directing Emmys for the television movies Against the Wall, The Burning Season, Andersonville, and George Wallace. He received an Emmy nomination this year for his last film, HBO's Path to War, his 15th such nod.

Frankenheimer's career began as something of a fluke. After graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts, where he had abandoned a promising tennis career to pursue acting, he joined the Air Force and by 1951 was working in the Pentagon mailroom. Frankenheimer read an order that came through seeking recruits for the Air Force's newly formed film squadron in Burbank. He applied and soon found himself in Sherman Oaks making a short film on asphalt manufacturing.

Assigned to produce a film about a registered cattle farm in Northridge, Frankenheimer was asked by the farm's owner to write for his local live television show, Harvey Howard's Ranch Roundup. Howard proclaimed Frankenheimer's script the best he'd ever had and informed the young man that since the director was drunk, Frankenheimer would have to direct.

In his March 2000 interview for the Television Academy's Archive of American Television, Frankenheimer recalled to Archive executive producer Michael Rosen what happened next:

“I said, ‘Well, I don't know how to do that.’ He said, ‘It's very simple. There are two cameras. You have a choice. You put one on the cows and one on me, and if you're smart, you'll keep the one on me.’ And I said, ‘I'm smart.’ So I went in and I directed the show.”

Frankenheimer went on to make several Air Force documentaries including one in which he shot footage from a plane next to test pilot Chuck Yeager as the pilot broke the sound barrier.

“I'd been searching all my life for something that I thought I was good at, besides swinging a tennis racket," Frankenheimer told the Archive's Rosen. “And from the first time I put a camera in my hand, I knew. ... I knew that I had a talent for this. ... I found it easy with the camera, putting it in the right place, doing the right thing. It was harder learning all the technical part of it. But the aesthetic of it, the idea of composition ... “

While in the Air Force, Frankenheimer had met director John Ford, who recommended that he go into television. Upon his discharge in 1953, Frankenheimer returned to his native New York to seek work. He was hired as an associate director at CBS and eventually become Sidney Lumet's associate director on Person to Person.

In 1955, Frankenheimer was sent to Hollywood to direct the dramatic anthology Climax where he earned his first Emmy nomination for a Rod Serling-scripted episode. The next year he directed his first feature, The Young Stranger, based on a Climax script. Also in 1956, he was asked to become the chief director of the new CBS anthology series Playhouse 90. Among the episodes he helmed were The Days of Wine and Roses with Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie, For Whom the Bell Tolls with Jason Robards, and The Turn of the Screw with Ingrid Bergman.

But live television was becoming a thing of the past, so Frankenheimer reluctantly turned to features and experienced great early success with The Young Savages, Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May and, particularly, the 1962 classic conspiracy thriller, The Manchurian Candidate. His numerous other movies include The Fixer, The Gypsy Moths, The French Connection II, Black Sunday, Ronin and his final feature film, Reindeer Games.

After the assassination of his good friend Robert Kennedy, who had been staying at Frankenheimer's home during that fateful Los Angeles trip, Frankenheimer developed a drinking problem and suffered several career setbacks. He eventually resolved his personal problems, while television — his first directing love — came to his professional rescue. In 1994, he was approached by producer Jonathan Axelrod, the son of writer-producer-family friend George Axelrod, to direct the HBO telefilm Against the Wall, about the 1971 Attica rebellion.

Though the film had a bare bones budget, Frankenheimer agreed. "We got real lucky," he told the Archive, “We got a great group of actors ... and the script was brilliant. ... And I just decided, ‘I'm just going to let it all out here. Because if I'm ever going to reinvent myself, it's going to be here.’ And I went to very, very daring camera angles. I really souped up the pace ... and I made the stakes very high, and they already were: It was a prison riot, one of the most famous in history. ... We really went for it.”

As did viewers and critics. Frankenheimer was reinvented and renewed. He followed that success with HBO's The Burning Season and two TNT telefilms, Andersonville and George Wallace.

"I love doing cable television," Frankenheimer told the Archive, “because the subject matter is so much better than it is for feature films, really. I don't think any of those four cable movies that I did would have been made as a feature film, even if they had Tom Cruise. They were uniquely for television because they were really cutting-edge subjects. And it's not an accident that I have this shelf full of stuff that I got for it, you know. I mean, because the scripts were so good.”

Frankenheimer's widow, actress Evans Evans, who had been married to him 41 years, says, “It was so exciting to see John totally rejuvenated with Against the Wall. He loved addressing the subject matter of those five cable films [including Path to War], which had to do with the political life of our country and in the case of The Burning Season, internationally, and with the problems we are all facing. And he loved working with the executives at HBO and TNT — it was refreshing to deal with executives who were as impassioned about the programming as he was.”

Indeed, another HBO film based on the book The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York was in the works at the time of his death.

Frankenheimer knew he had been selected for the Television Academy Hall of Fame. "He was absolutely thrilled," Evans Frankenheimer says. “It meant a great, great deal to him, because television had been his home in the live TV days. He hadn't wanted to leave it. So the whole idea of being honored by his peers in television is something he felt very strongly about. It's a big cap to his career.”


This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating John Frankenheimer's induction in 2002.

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