Legendary ‘The Exorcist’ Director William Friedkin Dies at 87

Oscar-winning director William Friedkin, who carved his place into film history with classics such as The French Connection and The Exorcist, died Monday in Los Angeles, his wife, the former studio head Sherry Lansing, confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter.

The 87-year-old’s cause of death was not disclosed.

Friedkin rose to prominence in the 1970s alongside a cohort of inventive and risk-seeking directors like Peter Bogdanovich, Roman Polanski, and Francis Ford Coppola, using his own history as a documentarian to produce stylized thrillers with notably pessimistic overtones—a reflection of a turbulent era marked by economic uncertainty, the Vietnam War and Watergate.

He sought to convey “fear and paranoia, both old friends of mine,” he wrote in a 2013 memoir called The Friedkin Connection.

He began his career in the mailroom at Chicago’s local TV station WGN, where he was mentored by a writer named Fran Coughlin and quickly through rose the ranks to direct live TV broadcasts and, later, thousands of TV documentaries.

After the breakout success of one of those films, The People vs. Paul Crump—which featured a death row inmate Friedkin believed to be innocent (Crump was later granted clemency after the film’s release)—he moved to Los Angeles and quickly established himself as a rogue actor unafraid to buck the industry’s established power structure.

The Hollywood Reporter relayed a story from the brash young director’s early years, when Friedkin was the subject of a particularly harsh tongue-lashing at the hands of Alfred Hitchcock for not wearing a tie while working on the set of NBC’s The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. As it turned out, later that day he won a Director’s Guild Award for The French Connection—and gave the legendary director a piece of his mind while making his way to the stage: “How do you like the tie, Hitch?”

He followed up the breakout success of Connection with the explosive 1973 horror classic The Exorcist, based on the book by Peter Blatty. The work grossed $500 million worldwide, sparked an ensuing moral panic and, alongside 1972’s The Godfather, is widely credited with ushering in an era of Hollywood blockbusters that extends to this day.

But The Exorcist was Friedkin’s last real blockbuster, with his next success coming in the form of 1985’s critically acclaimed To Live and Die in L.A.

In his later years, Friedkin was open about his mistakes and talked freely about the many regrets he accrued over the course of a storybook career—including the time he burned a Basquiat painting for a scene and once turned down the opportunity to direct a music video for Prince.

“I’ve burned bridges and relationships to the point that I consider myself lucky to still be around,” he said. “I never played by the rules, often to my own detriment. I’ve been rude, exercised bad judgment, squandered most of the gifts God gave me, and treated the love and friendship of others as I did Basquiat’s art and Prince’s music. When you are immune to the feelings of others, can you be a good father, a good husband, a good friend? Do I have regrets? You bet.”

He continued directing films until his death, with his final work, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, set to premiere at the Venice International Film Festival next month.

Friedkin was married four times, to newscaster Kelly Lange and actors Lesley-Anne Down and Jeanne Moreau, as well as Lansing. He is survived by his wife and two sons.

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