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Sidney Lumet: The Prince of New York City

Sidney Lumet was a quintessential New Yorker -- street smart with a bleeding heart and a head full of immigrant, everyman voices.
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Sidney Lumet died this past weekend. By now, with news cycles spinning like centrifuges, Lumet's death will soon be old news. That would be a shame. This is one of those losses that should linger for a little while longer, and surely not be forgotten.

This is actually my second Sidney Lumet remembrance. Sidney Lumet was my friend, and that's what friends do for each other, especially when one of them is gone.

I interviewed Sidney on the stages of the 92nd Street Y, Symphony Space, and at the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. And I am co-producing a documentary film about him with the director, Daniel Anker.

It is a bit ironic that Lumet's death swept across the nation over the weekend like a tornado. Perhaps it was the same one he replaced with a snowstorm in his cinematic adaptation of the musical, The Wiz. Every newspaper and online magazine posted something about Lumet's death and his astonishing catalog of directorial work -- 50 films; 200 teleplays; numerous theatrical productions as both a director and actor; and even a television series, 100 Centre Street. The news of his death was received as if this country had just lost an American treasure, which it had.

The viral nature of the news was fitting for a director who was notorious for working astoundingly fast. Young actors could barely keep up with him, and his films were always delivered to the studio on time and under budget. Indeed, the economy of his films, their limited landscapes and lack of pretension often led to criticism. He didn't seem to appreciate that the French New Wave was in vogue while his claustrophobic (12 Angry Men), desperate men (Dog Day Afternoon and The Pawnbroker), who railed against the suits, the machines (Network), and the crooked cops (Serpico and Prince of the City), were not sufficiently cool.

Lumet did not wish to be known as an auteur. He refused to be one of those stereotypically aloof filmmakers, or to take himself too seriously. Daniel Anker and I had a very difficult time getting him to talk about the deeper meaning of his films and their thematic connections. Making movies was, for him, simply a job he loved and intimately understood. No one enjoyed discussing various lens sizes more than Sidney Lumet.

Lumet once told me that he wouldn't make a film where a man is sitting at a table reading Crime and Punishment. Yes, a great novel, for sure, but the only reason it's in the picture is to prove that the director is well read. Lumet didn't use his films as vanity plates. He referred to them as movies, and no Sidney Lumet picture ever began with the opening credit, "A Film by Sidney Lumet." He was satisfied that it merely read, "directed by Sidney Lumet."

Lumet was of another time -- immigrant Jewish parents; sleeping during the hot summers on tenement fire escapes in the Lower East Side; surviving the McCarthy Blacklist. He managed to get by without a Twitter account or a Facebook page. Lumet was teething before the Depression and cut his teeth as a film director during the Golden Age of Television in the 1950s. In between he was a child Yiddish actor on Second Avenue and then a teenage actor on Broadway. After that he served in the Pacific in World War II.

His career intersected with so much of the 20th century, and he transcended many eras, all of which ended up being projected onto his films, and some of which foreshadowed a future that we would all come to know. Who would have imagined that Lumet's most decorated film, Network, ultimately predicted the Reality TV of today with its cancellation of high art and serious news, and the excesses of Wall Street conglomerates that have us all now screaming from our own fire escapes, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

Lumet was a Zelig figure of sorts. There wasn't anyone he didn't know or hadn't worked with. He once told me about a party he attended with Michael Jackson and Brooke Shields. The whole setting, and the company, seemed surreal.

But he was a quintessential New Yorker -- street smart with a bleeding heart and a head full of immigrant, everyman voices. He proved his diehard New York loyalty by never succumbing to Hollywood and setting nearly all of his movies right here in New York. (Even The Verdict, which takes place in Boston, was shot in New York.)

Sidney Lumet lived to 86, and died a native son and a prince of New York City.

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