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John Michael Frankenheimer (February 19, 1930 – July 6, 2002) was an American filmmaker. He is known for making The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Birdman of Alcatraz (also 1962), The Train, (1964) and Seven Days in May (also 1964).

Early life

Frankenheimer was born in Malba, Queens, New Yorkmarker, the son of Helen Mary (née Sheedy) and Walter Martin Frankenheimer, a stockbroker. Frankenheimer thought he might be related to actress Ally Sheedy. His father was of Germanmarker Jewish descent and his mother was Irish Catholic, and Frankenheimer was raised Catholic. He graduated from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusettsmarker, in 1951. Frankenheimer became a filmmaker while serving as a U.S. Air Force lieutenant during the Korean War, directing service films for the Air Force and became interested in directing after his military service.


Frankenheimer began his directing career in live television. He recalled after being discharged, he had an interview with CBS and had a conversation with the hiring manager. The manager had also been a member of the armed forces and told Frankenheimer that while they had no openings at the time, he would call when needed. According to the director in an interview with The Directors Series, he had spent two weeks in his hotel room waiting for a phone call as the hotel didn't provide a messaging service. At the end of this period, Frankenheimer did receive a phone call and was put to work as a live television director. Throughout the 1950s he directed over 140 episodes of shows like Playhouse 90, Climax!, and Danger, including The Comedian, written by Rod Serling and starring Mickey Rooney as a ragingly vicious television comedian.

His first theatrical film was 1957's The Young Stranger, starring James MacArthur as a rebellious teenager. Frankenheimer oversaw the production, based on a Climax! episode called "Deal a Blow", at the age of 26.

He returned to television during the rest of the 1950s, only moving to film permanently in 1961 with The Young Savages, in which he worked for the first time with Burt Lancaster in a story of a young boy murdered by a New York gang.

Birdman of Alcatraz

Their next film, Birdman of Alcatraz, shot in 1961, came to him after production had already begun under another director (Charles Crichton). Burt Lancaster, who was producing, as well as starring, asked Frankenheimer to take over the film. As Frankenheimer describes in Charles Champlin's interview book, he told Lancaster the script was too long, but was told he had to shoot everything that was written.

Sure enough, the first cut of the film was four and a half hours long, the length Frankenheimer had predicted. Moreover, as he had said at the beginning, the film was constructed so that it couldn't be cut and still be coherent. Frankenheimer said the film would have to be rewritten and partly reshot. Lancaster was committed to star in Judgment at Nuremberg, so he made that film while Frankenheimer prepared the reshoots. The finished film, released in 1962, was a huge success and was nominated for four Oscars, including one for Lancaster's performance.

Frankenheimer was next hired by producer John Houseman to direct All Fall Down, a family drama starring Eva Marie Saint and Warren Beatty. Because of the production difficulties with Birdman of Alcatraz, All Fall Down was actually released first.

The Manchurian Candidate

He followed this with his most iconic film, The Manchurian Candidate. Frankenheimer and producer George Axelrod bought Richard Condon's 1959 novel after it had already been turned down by many Hollywood studios. After Frank Sinatra committed to the film, they secured backing from United Artists.

The story of a Korean War veteran, brainwashed by the Communist Chinese to assassinate the candidate for President co-starred Laurence Harvey and Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury as Harvey's evil mother. Frankenheimer had to fight to cast Lansbury, who had worked with him on All Fall Down, and was just two years older than Harvey. Sinatra's preference had been for Lucille Ball. The film was nominated for two Oscars, including one for Lansbury.

The film was unseen for many years. Urban legend has it that the film was pulled from circulation due to the similarity of its plot to the death of President Kennedy the following year, but Frankenheimer states in the Champlin book that it was pulled because of a legal battle between producer Sinatra and the studio over Sinatra's share of the profits. In any event, it was re-released to great acclaim in 1988.

Seven Days in May

He followed this up with another successful political thriller, Seven Days in May (1964). He again bought the rights to a bestselling book, this time by Charles Bailey II and Fletcher Knebel, and again produced the film with his star, this time Kirk Douglas.

Douglas intended to play the role of the General who attempts to lead a coup against the President, who is about to sign a disarmament treaty with the Soviets. Douglas then decided he wanted to work with Burt Lancaster, with whom he had just costarred in another film. To entice Lancaster, Douglas agreed to let him play the General, while Douglas took the less showy lead role of the General's aide, who turns against him and helps the President.

The film, written by Rod Serling, costarred Fredric March as the President and Ava Gardner as a former flame of Lancaster's, was nominated for two Oscars.

The Train

Frankenheimer's next film was again taken over from another director, this time Arthur Penn. The Train had already begun shooting in France when star Burt Lancaster had the original director fired and called in Frankenheimer to save the film. As he recounts in the Champlin book, Frankenheimer used the production's desperation to his advantage in negotiations. He demanded and got the following: his name was made part of the title, "John Frankenheimer's The Train"; the French co-director, demanded by French tax laws, was not allowed to ever set foot on set; he was given total final cut; and a Ferrari.

Again saddled with an unfilmably long script, Frankenheimer threw it out and took the locations and actors left from the previous film and began filming, with writers working in Paris as the production shot in Normandy. The poorly chosen locations caused endless weather delays. The film contains multiple real train wrecks. The Allied bombing of a rail yard was accomplished with real dynamite, as the French rail authority needed to enlarge the track gauge. This can be observed by the shockwaves traveling through the ground during the action sequence. Producers realized after filming that the story needed another action scene, and reassembled some of the cast for a Spitfire attack scene that was inserted into the first third of the film. The finished movie was successful and the script was nominated for an Oscar.


Seconds (1966), starred Rock Hudson as an elderly man given the body of a young man through experimental surgery, was poorly received on its release, but has come to be one of the director's most respected and popular films subsequently. The film is an expressionistic, part-horror, part-thriller, part-science fiction film about the obsession with eternal youth and misplaced faith in the ability of medical science to achieve it.

Grand Prix

He followed Seconds with his most spectacular production, 1966's Grand Prix. Shot on location at the Grand Prix races throughout Europe, using 65mm Cinerama cameras, the film starred James Garner and Eva Marie Saint. The making was a race itself, as John Sturges and Steve McQueen planned to make a similar movie titled Day of the Champion. Due to their contract with the German Nürburgringmarker, Frankenheimer had to turn over 27 reels shot there to Sturges. Frankenheimer was ahead in schedule anyway, and the McQueen/Sturges project was called off, while the German race track was only mentioned briefly in Grand Prix. Introducing methods of photographing high-speed auto racing that had never been seen before, mounting cameras on the cars, at full speed and putting the stars in the actual cars, instead of against rear-projections, the film was an international success and won three Oscars, for editing, sound, and sound effects.

1960s and 1970s

His next film, 1967's all-star anti-war comedy The Extraordinary Seaman, starred David Niven, Faye Dunaway, Alan Alda and Mickey Rooney. The film was a failure at the box office and critically. Frankenheimer calls it in the Champlin book "the only movie I've made which I would say was a total disaster."

Then came 1968's The Fixer, about a Jew in Tsarist Russia and based on the novel by Bernard Malamud. The film was shot in Communist Hungary. It starred Alan Bates and was not a major success, but Bates was nominated for an Oscar. Frankenheimer was a close friend of Senator Robert Kennedy and in fact drove him to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angelesmarker the night Kennedy was assassinated in June 1968.

The Gypsy Moths was a romantic drama about a troupe of barnstorming skydivers and the impact they have on a small midwestern town. The celebration of Americana starred Frankenheimer regular Lancaster, reuniting him with From Here to Eternity co-star Deborah Kerr, and it also featured Gene Hackman. The film failed to find an audience, but Frankenheimer always called it one of his personal favorites.

He followed this with I Walk the Line in 1970. The film, starring Gregory Peck and Tuesday Weld,about a Tennessee sheriff who falls in love with a moonshiner's daughter, was set to songs by Johnny Cash. Frankenheimer's next project took him to Afghanistan. The Horseman focused on the relationship between a father and son, played by Jack Palance and Omar Sharif. Sharif's character, an expert horseman, played the Afghan national sport of buzkashi.

Impossible Object, also known as Story of a Love Story, suffered distribution difficulties and was not widely released. He followed this in 1973 with a four-hour film of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, starring Lee Marvin, and the decidedly offbeat 99 and 44/100% Dead a crime black comedy starring Richard Harris.

With his fluent French and knowledge of the culture, Frankenheimer was next asked to direct French Connection II, set entirely in Marseille. With Hackman reprising his role as New York cop Popeye Doyle, the film was a major success and got Frankenheimer his next job, Black Sunday in 1976.

Black Sunday, based on author Thomas Harris's only non-Hannibal Lecter novel, involves an Israeli Mossad agent (Robert Shaw), chasing a Palestinian terrorist (Marthe Keller) and a disgruntled Vietnam vet (Bruce Dern) who plan to blow up the Goodyear blimp over the Super Bowl. It was shot on location at the actual Super Bowl X in January 1976 in Miami, with the use of a real Goodyear Blimp. The film tested very highly, and Paramount and Frankenheimer had high expectations for it. When it failed to become the hit that was expected, Frankenheimer admitted he developed a serious problem with alcohol.

He is quoted in Champlin's biography as saying that his alcohol problem caused him to do work that was below his own standards on his next film, 1979's Prophecy, an ecological monster movie about a mutant grizzly bear terrorizing a forest in Maine.


The director's output lessened considerably during this period. In the next fifteen years, in fact, he directed only seven films including Dead Bang in 1989 starring Don Johnson. In 1990, Frankenheimer returned to his forte of the cold-war political thriller when he made The Fourth War. This film starred Roy Scheider as a loose cannon Army colonel drawn into a dangerous personal war with a Russian officer. It was not a commercial success.


Frankenheimer was able to make a comeback in the 1990s by returning to television. He directed two films for HBO in 1994: Against the Wall and The Burning Season that won him several awards and renewed acclaim. The director also helmed two films for Turner Network Television in 1996 and 1997, Andersonville and George Wallace, that were highly praised. He even acted for the first time, playing a desperate U.S. General in The General's Daughter (1999) in a crucial cameo appearance.

His 1996 film The Island of Doctor Moreau, which he took over a few weeks into production from Richard Stanley, was the cause of countless stories of production woes and personality clashes, and it received scathing reviews. It was said that the veteran director could not stand Val Kilmer, the young star of the film. When Kilmer's last scene was completed it was reported that Frankenheimer said, "Now get that bastard off my set." In an interview, Frankenheimer refused to discuss the film, saying only that he had a miserable time making it.

However, his next film, 1998's Ronin, starring Robert De Niro, was a return to form, featuring Frankenheimer's now trademark elaborate car chases woven into a labyrinthine espionage plot. Co-starring an international cast including Jean Reno and Jonathan Pryce, it was a critical and box-office success.


His last theatrical film, 2000's Reindeer Games, starring Ben Affleck, underperformed. But then came his final film, Path to War for HBO in 2002, which brought him back to his strengths - political machinations, 1960s America and character-based drama, and was nominated for numerous awards. A look back at the Vietnam war, it starred Michael Gambon as President Lyndon Johnson along with Alec Baldwin and Donald Sutherland.

Frankenheimer was scheduled to direct a prequel to The Exorcist but died suddenly in Los Angeles, Californiamarker, from a stroke due to complications following spinal surgery at the age of 72, shortly before filming started.

Despite the many celebrated films he directed, many of which won Academy Awards in various categories, Frankenheimer was never nominated for a Best Director Oscar.


Further reading

  • Mitchell, Lisa, Thiede, Karl, and Champlin, Charles (1995). John Frankenheimer: A Conversation With Charles Champlin (Riverwood Press). ISBN 9781880756096.


  1. Hollywood director John Frankenheimer dies at 72
  2. John Frankenheimer, 72; Director Was Master of the Political Thriller
  3. Issues raised by the career of US filmmaker John Frankenheimer
  4. My Husband, My Friend, Neile McQueen Toffel, A Signet Book, 1986 [1]

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