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

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — William Friedkin, the Oscar winning director who became a top filmmaker in his 30s with the gripping “The French Connection” and the horrifying “The Exorcist” and struggled in the following decades to match his early success has died. He was 87.

Friedkin, who won the best director Oscar for “The French Connection,” died Monday in Los Angeles, a representative from his office told The Associated Press. His wife, former studio head Sherry Lansing also confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter.

The movie, based on a true story, 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.

The movie 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,” 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.

READ MORE: Max von Sydow, ‘Exorcist’ actor and Bergman film collaborator, dies at age 90

It 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 success of those early works.

Other film credits included “To Live and Die in L.A.,” “Cruising,” “Rules of Engagement” and a TV remake of the classic play and Sidney Lumet movie “12 Angry Men.” Friedkin also directed episodes for such TV shows as “The Twilight Zone,” “Rebel Highway” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

Born in Chicago on Aug. 29, 1939, he began working in local TV productions as a teenager. By age 16 he was directing live shows.

“My main influence was dramatic radio when I was a kid,” he said in a 2001 interview. “I remember listening to it in the dark, Everything was left to the imagination. It was just sound. I think of the sounds first and then the images.”

He moved from live shows to documentaries, making “The People Versus Paul Crump,” in 1962. It was the story of a prison inmate who rehabilitates himself on Death Row after being sentenced for the murder of a guard during a botched robbery at a Chicago food plant.

Producer David Wolper was so impressed with it that he brought Friedkin to Hollywood to direct network TV shows.

After working on such shows as “The Bold Ones,” “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and the documentary “The Thin Blue Line,” Friedkin landed his first film, 1967’s “Good Times.” It was a lighthearted musical romp headlined by the pop duo Sonny and Cher in what would be their only movie appearance together.

He followed that with “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” about backstage life at a burlesque theater, and “The Birthday Party,” from a Harold Pinter play. He then gained critical attention with 1970’s “The Boys in the Band,” a landmark film about gay men.

Friedkin had three brief marriages in the 1970s and ’80s, to French actress Jeanne Moreau; British actress Lesley-Anne Down, with whom he had a son; and longtime Los Angeles TV news anchor Kelly Lange.

In 1991 he married Paramount studio executive Sherry Lansing.

Friedkin has a new film on the way, too, “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” starring Kiefer Sutherland that’s set to premiere at the Venice Film Festival next month.

The late Associated Press Correspondent Bob Thomas was the primary writer of this obituary.

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