skip navigation
John Frankenheimer

John Frankenheimer



TCM Archive Materials VIEW ALL ARCHIVES (3)

Recent DVDs

The Iceman Cometh ... One of the few still undiscovered treasures of American 70's cinema, John... more info $21.95was $29.95 Buy Now

Also Known As: Alan Smithee Died: July 6, 2002
Born: February 19, 1930 Cause of Death: died from a stroke following spinal surgery
Birth Place: Malba, New York, USA Profession: director, producer, screenwriter, actor


Having emerged from the era of 1950s live television, director John Frankenheimer quickly became a Hollywood wunderkind after directing several highly-regarded films before suffering a series of setbacks that nearly crippled his career, only to have one of the truly great comebacks of American cinema. Frankenheimer began his career directing some 150-odd live television dramas in the 1950s and early 1960s, contributing memorable installments to anthology series like "Playhouse 90" (CBS, 1956-1960). Though he made his feature debut in 1957 with "The Young Stranger," he began his feature career proper with "The Young Savages" (1961), which began a successful five-picture collaboration with actor Burt Lancaster. The pair reunited for one of Frankenheimer's most well-received films, "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962), though the best for the director was yet to come. With "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), Frankenheimer directed a chilling thriller that not only held up over the ensuing decades, but entered the pantheon of true Hollywood classics. Frankenheimer followed with "Seven Days in May" (1964), a frighteningly realistic White House coup-de-tat that reportedly received behind the scene support from...

Having emerged from the era of 1950s live television, director John Frankenheimer quickly became a Hollywood wunderkind after directing several highly-regarded films before suffering a series of setbacks that nearly crippled his career, only to have one of the truly great comebacks of American cinema. Frankenheimer began his career directing some 150-odd live television dramas in the 1950s and early 1960s, contributing memorable installments to anthology series like "Playhouse 90" (CBS, 1956-1960). Though he made his feature debut in 1957 with "The Young Stranger," he began his feature career proper with "The Young Savages" (1961), which began a successful five-picture collaboration with actor Burt Lancaster. The pair reunited for one of Frankenheimer's most well-received films, "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962), though the best for the director was yet to come. With "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), Frankenheimer directed a chilling thriller that not only held up over the ensuing decades, but entered the pantheon of true Hollywood classics. Frankenheimer followed with "Seven Days in May" (1964), a frighteningly realistic White House coup-de-tat that reportedly received behind the scene support from President John F. Kennedy. Following lesser known films like "The Train" (1965) and "Grand Prix" (1966), as well as the tragic assassination of close friend Robert F. Kennedy, Frankenheimer entered a dark period marred by depression, alcoholism and an inability to direct a hit film. Though he saw some success with "The French Connection II" (1975) and "Black Sunday" (1977), Frankenheimer floundered throughout the 1970s and 1980s, before rejuvenating his career on the small screen in the 1990s, winning four Emmy Awards in five years for directing "Against the Wall" (HBO, 1994), "The Burning Season" (HBO 1994), "Andersonville" (TNT, 1996) and "George Wallace" (TNT, 1997). The newfound success allowed him to make a triumphant return to features with "Ronin" (1998), an old school Cold War spy thriller that gave Frankenheimer one last success on the big screen and cemented his reputation as the undisputed master of the political thriller.

Born on Feb. 19, 1930 in Malba, NY, Frankenheimer was raised by his father, Walter, a stock broker of German-Jewish origins, and his Irish-Catholic mother, Helen. Though he was introverted and socially awkward as a youth - his father sent him to a psychological institute to be tested when he was 17 - Frankenheimer was an excellent student, performing well at LaSalle Military Academy, where he was captain of the tennis team. He next attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where he earned a bachelor's in literature. During his last two years at Williams, he discovered acting and spent his summer vacations performing summer stock at the Highland Playhouse in Falmouth, MA. Following his graduation in 1951, Frankenheimer joined the Air Force and served in its newly formed film squadron, where he directed service films during the Korean War. Having found his life's ambition, Frankenheimer left his Air Force film unit and talked his way into an assistant director's job at CBS, where he spent the next several years establishing himself as one of the most brilliant talents to emerge from television's vaunted Golden Age.

Frankenheimer helmed more than 150 live dramas between 1954 and 1960, with such prestigious contributions as "The Last Tycoon," starring Jack Palance; "For Whom the Bell Tolls," with Jason Robards, Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach; the original "Days of Wine and Roses," starring Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie; "The Turn of the Screw," with Ingrid Bergman; and "The Browning Version," which featured Sir John Gielgud's first television appearance. He soon made a seamless transition to feature films with "The Young Stranger" (1957), a sensitive father-son drama about a movie executive (James Daly) who struggles in a strained relationship with his out-of-control son (James MacArthur), which was an expanded version of a one-hour TV drama he had directed called "Deal a Blow" (1955). Frankenheimer returned to television, directing several memorable episodes of the anthology series "Playhouse 90" (CBS, 1956-1960), including "The Comedian" (1957) with Mickey Rooney and written by Rod Serling. By the turn of the next decade, Frankenheimer returned to feature directing with "The Young Savages" (1961), an urban drama centered on an assistant district attorney (Burt Lancaster), who investigates the stabbing death of a young Puerto Rican boy by three juvenile delinquents. The film marked Frankenheimer's permanent move into features while inaugurating a collaboration with Lancaster that spanned five films.

Frankenheimer and Lancaster next joined forces on "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962), a triumphant redemption drama about Robert Stroud (Lancaster), a real-life prisoner serving a life sentence who began helping injured sparrows in the yard and later became a noted ornithologist, making several contributions to avian pathology while authoring two books. Though portrayed as mild-mannered by Lancaster, the real Stroud was widely considered to be a foul-tempered and aggressive person who was serving time for killing a prison guard after having already been convicted of manslaughter. Despite some outrage over Stroud's characterization, the movie earned four Academy Award nominations, including one for Lancaster's performance. Frankenheimer followed with what became his seminal film, "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), a stark and tense political thriller about a U.S. Army hero (Laurence Harvey) returned from the Korean War who has been secretly brainwashed by the Communists to assassinate a presidential nominee. But when his old army buddy (Frank Sinatra) starts to think something is wrong, the plot begins to unravel, leading to the revelation that his right-wing and rather incestuous mother (Angele Lansbury) was a key player in the assassination attempt. Both chilling and brilliant, the Cold War thriller earned Lansbury an Academy Award nomination while giving Frankenheimer a place in cinema history for directing a true Hollywood classic.

Having earned himself considerable clout, Frankenheimer followed with another taut Cold War thriller, "Seven Days in May" (1964), which starred Burt Lancaster as an army general whose plot to overthrow an unpopular president (Frederic March) is discovered by a Pentagon colonel (Kirk Douglas). With a script penned by Rod Serling and an ominous score composed by Jerry Goldsmith, "Seven Days in May" presented a chilling situation that even President John F. Kennedy - who reportedly personally urged Frankenheimer to make the film - thought was a potential reality. No sooner had he completed the film when Lancaster called him to Paris to replace Arthur Penn as director of "The Train" (1965), a near-flawlessly executed adventure story about a Nazi train smuggling works of art from Paris to Berlin during the French liberation. His first taste of failure came with "Seconds" (1966), which starred Rock Hudson as a frustrated middle-aged businessman who manages to transform his identity with the help of science, only to find himself trapped in a life he realizes he never wanted. Because of the difficulty of its premise, the film initially flopped at the box office, though it later grew into something of a cult favorite over the years.

Now in demand as an action director, Frankenheimer went on to helm "Grand Prix" (1966), which combined the director's love of auto racing with his love of film. Though thin on plot, the movie was full of high-octane action in its depiction of a cross-continent road race and featured an international cast headed by James Garner, Yves Montand and Toshiro Mifune. "Grand Prix" was also Frankenheimer's first film in color and earned a considerable sum at the box office, fixing a reputation damaged by his previous film. But things began to unravel for Frankenheimer in June 1968 when his close relationship with Robert F. Kennedy ended in tragedy. At the time, he was serving as Kennedy's media advisor, as well as opening up his Malibu home to the popular senator. In a last minute change of plans, Frankenheimer drove Kennedy to the Ambassador Hotel in downtown L.A., where the presidential hopeful was gunned down by Sirhan Sirhan. The tragic event plunged Frankenheimer into a deep depression which was exacerbated by an already growing problem with alcohol. Practically overnight, the seeds to the wunderkind's destruction were sown.

Frankenheimer and his third wife moved to Europe, where he continued making films like "The Fixer" (1968), "The Gypsy Moths" (1969) and "The Horsemen 1971), though none reached the quality of his previous work. He went on to direct a version of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" (1973), one of Frankenheimer's personal favorites which few saw despite good reviews. He showed signs of box-office life with the sequel "French Connection II" (1975), which told the continuing story of Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman), who leaves Manhattan for Marseilles hot on the trail of heroin kingpin Frog One (Fernando Rey). A mere shadow of the Oscar-winning 1971 original, the sequel proved successful enough for Frankenheimer to win his next job. His career rejuvenation continued with the commercial success of "Black Sunday" (1977), an action thriller about a deranged pilot (Bruce Dern) determined to detonate the Super Bowl with a bomb-laden blimp. Smart and terrifyingly realistic, "Black Sunday" was one of his last major hits; what followed was almost two decades of mediocrity that seemed unlikely to have come from the man who had directed "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Seven Days in May."

While quality scripts failed to come his way, Frankenheimer slipped into obscurity while also suffering from a debilitating addiction to alcohol that nearly caused cirrhosis of the liver. While he managed to quit alcohol in the early 1980s, the director was unable to pull himself out his career doldrums, helming such fare as the horror schlock-fest "Prophesy" (1979), the cheap martial arts actioner, "The Challenge" (1982), and the admirable, but ultimately failed political thriller ""The Holcroft Covenant" (1985). Frankenheimer directed another film he was proud of with an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's "52 Pick-Up" (1986), but the blackmail crime thriller starring Roy Scheider and Kelly Preston failed to generate much business at the box office. Turning back to television, Frankenheimer adopted the pseudonym Alan Smithee to divorce himself from the action-adventure yarn, "Riviera" (ABC, 1987). He ran into problems on the action thriller, "Dead Bang" (1989), thanks to that film's star, Don Johnson, personifying the temperamental star cliché. Amidst numerous critical reviews rebuking Frankenheimer's decision to make such a trivial film, "Dead Bang" flopped at the box office, making any sort of feature film comeback nearly impossible. Though he found a renewed interest following a 1988 re-release of "The Manchurian Candidate," Frankenheimer struggled to regain his footing in the feature world.

Following the familiar Cold War-themed spy thriller "The Fourth Wall" (1989) and the rather forgettable "Year of the Gun" (1991), Frankenheimer went back to television in an effort to rekindle some of the magic of his early career. After directing an episode of "Tales from the Crypt" (HBO, 1992), he helmed the made-for-cable movie "Against the Wall" (HBO, 1994), which told the story about the 1971 Attica Prison uprisings from a hostage's point of view. The small screen movie finally provided Frankenheimer with the best material he had seen in decades. Although he had received five Emmy nominations for his directing live television early in his career, "Against the Wall" earned him his first statue for Outstanding Directing. With renewed career vigor, Frankenheimer found new life on the small screen, directing "The Burning Season" (HBO 1994), a biopic about South American activist Chico Mendes (Raul Julia), which earned him a second straight Emmy Award for directing. He found himself in the winner's circle at the Emmys again for "Andersonville" (TNT, 1996), a two-part miniseries about the notorious Civil War prison camp. Going for the cycle, Frankenheimer won his fourth directing Emmy in five years with "George Wallace" (1997), a reflective and not-unflattering look at the famed Alabama governor and staunch segregationist (Gary Sinese) whose bid for the presidency abruptly ended when permanently disabled by an assassin's bullet.

Because of his resurgence on television, Frankenheimer was given opportunity to redeem himself on the big screen. He once again came to the rescue and replaced an original director, this time Richard Stanley, on "The Island of Dr. Moreau" (1996), sorting out the chaos and enabling its release, while dealing with two of Hollywood's most difficult actors, Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. Despite the critical and financial drubbing that movie received, Frankenheimer largely escaped criticism. He next directed "Ronin" (1998), a triumphant return to the big screen that ultimately proved to be his last truly great film. A sly spy thriller set in a post-Cold War world written by David Mamet, "Ronin" followed a band of international operatives (including Robert De Niro, Jean Reno and Stellan Skarsgard) in a nonstop pursuit of an oddly-shaped aluminum suitcase, the contents of which remain unknown. Uncluttered by boring details, the film, showed off its extreme stylishness, including several high-action car chases and shootouts, which allowed Frankenheimer to put his bold visual style on display full-tilt. The man who had redefined the suspense film with "The Manchurian Candidate" and who had refused to give up his quest for the elusive big-budget picture, had finally weighed in with a movie that displayed his mastery of the medium.

Though he had found his form with "Ronin," Frankenheimer took a step back with his next feature, "Reindeer Games" (2000). Starring Ben Affleck as a recently released burglar who aims to spend his freedom with the woman of his dreams (Charlize Theron), the crime thriller - which featured that old cliché of one last heist - boasted some well-choreographed action sequences, but ultimately suffered from poor critical reviews and a lack of audience interest. But "Reindeer Games" proved to be a temporary misstep, as Frankenheimer returned to the small screen for "Path to War" (HBO, 2002), an intriguing look into the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (Michael Gambon), whose heralded domestic agenda suffers under the weight of the Vietnam War. Also starring Alec Baldwin as Robert McNamara, Tom Skerritt as General Westmoreland and Felicity Huffman as Lady Bird Johnson, "Path to War" earned vast critical praise and several award nominations, including one for another Emmy. But "Path to War" ultimately proved to be Frankenheimer's swan song. Just two months after the movie aired on HBO, the director suffered a sudden and debilitating stroke following spinal surgery that ended his life. At the time, Frankenheimer was scheduled to direct the prequel to "The Exorcist" (1973). He was 72.


Filmographyclose complete filmography


  Path To War (2002)
  Ronin (1998)
  Burning Season, The (1994) Director
  Dead Bang (1989)
  Riviera (1987)

CAST: (feature film)

 Black Sunday (1977)
 Brian Wilson: A Beach Boy's Tale (1999) Interviewee
 Rock Hudson: Acting the Part (1999) Interviewee

Milestones close milestones

During his last two summer vacations of college, acted in summer stock at the Highland Playhouse in Falmouth, Massachusetts
Served in US Air Force; eventually joined its newly formed film squadron
Short film about a California cattle farm brought him first assignment from the private sector, writing and producing a local TV show, "The Harry Howard Ranch Roundup"; served unofficially as director for drunken title holder
Arrived in NYC with $150 and talked his way into an assistant director's job at CBS
TV directing debut, "The Plot Against King Solomon" episode of the CBS series "You Are There"
After directing additional episodes of "You Are There" and "Danger", moved to CBS' California studios to direct for "Climax!" and "Playhouse 90"
Feature directorial debut, "The Young Stranger"; had also filmed live TV version ("Deal a Blow") for "Climax!"; preferred that version because he had worked with familiar TV crew
Helmed "The Comedian" for "Playhouse 90", considered by some the finest live drama from TV's "Golden Age" because of its depiction of the fledgling medium itself; written by Rod Serling and starring Mickey Rooney
Directed Broadway production, "The Midnight Sun"
Second feature, "The Young Savages", adapted from a novel by Evan Hunter; first of five films with Burt Lancaster; also first of five films with director of photography Lionel Lindon
Helmed William Inge's adaptation of James Leo Herlihy's novel "All Fall Down", starring Warren Beatty; first of two films that year with Angela Lansbury
Replaced Charles Crichton as director of "The Birdman of Alcatraz", starring Lancaster
Directed and co-produced (with screenwriter George Axelrod) "The Manchurian Candidtae"; second film with Lansbury
Initial collaboration with producer Edward Lewis, "Seven Days in May", starring Lancaster, Fredric March, Kirk Douglas and Ava Gardner
Replaced Arthur Penn as director of "The Train", starring Lancaster and Paul Scofield
After "Seconds" received harsh treatment at Cannes, Paramount panicked and dumped the film; critical esteem for film has grown over the years
Success of actioner "Grand Prix" restored bankability; international cast included James Garner, French actor Yves Montand and Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune
First collaboration with screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, "The Fixer", adapted from the Bernard Malamud novel
Directed campaign commercials for Robert F Kennedy during presidential primary season
Last film with Lancaster, "The Gypsy Moths"
Reteamed with Trumbo on "The Horsemen", adapted from the Joesph Kessel novel
Seventh and last film with Lewis, the highly esteemed "The Iceman Cometh"; also Fredric March's last film
Helmed the sequel "French Connection II"
Seized upon the Goodyear Blimp as an instrument of unpredictable menace in action disaster pic "Black Sunday"; feature acting debut as TV Controller
Reteamed with Mifune for "The Challenge", martial arts movie co-scripted by John Sayles; Steven Seagal worked as a stunt coordinator
Directed HBO TV-movie remake of "The Rainmaker", starring Tommy Lee Jones and Tuesday Weld
Second collaboration with screenwriter George Axelrod, "The Holcroft Covenant"
Career received boost with re-release of "The Manchurian Candidate"
Returned to TV at helm of "Maniac at Large" episode of HBO's "Tales of the Crypt"
Began career turnaround with "Against the Wall" (HBO); produced by Axelrod's son Jonathan; received first of four Emmy Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Directing for a Miniseries or Special
Produced and directed the HBO biopic "The Burning Season", starring Raul Julia; received second Emmy
Picked up third Emmy Award for the acclaimed TNT miniseries "Andersonville", set in the notorious Civil War prison camp; also served as an executive producer
First feature in five years, "The Island of Dr. Moreau"; took over production from fired South African director Richard Stanley, salvaged the film and made it releasable
Received fourth Emmy for helming the TNT biographical miniseries "George Wallace"; also produced
Delivered sly action masterpiece, "Ronin", a triumpant feature return; boasted international cast including Robert De Niro, Jean Reno and Stellan Skarsgard
Appeared as an Army general in the thriller "The General's Daughter"
Helmed the thriller "Reindeer Games", starring Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron
Directed the short "Ambush", one of five featurette advertisments for BMW shown over the Internet at
Helmed an as yet untitled prequel to "The Exorcist" (lensed 2002), focusing on Father Merrin's missionary work in Africa


Cordon Bleu: -
Foxwood School: Flushing , New York -
LaSalle Military Academy: Oakdale , New York - 1947
Williams College: Williamstown , Massachusetts - 1951


Actors John Scott and Dopn Galloway portrayed Frankenheimer in the TV productions "Robert Kennedy and His Times" (CBS, 1985) and "Rock Hudson" (NBC, 1990) respectively.

Frankenheimer used the pseudonymous Alan Smithee credit on the 1987 TV-movie "Riviera"

"It was very exciting. If they had live television right now, I'd still be doing it. You had total control as a director. It was live, so we had final cut. And you had no such thing as a difficult actor." --John Frankenheimer in Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1989.

On the death of his friend Robert Kennedy: "He wanted me up there on the podium with him, but I said I didn't think this was the kind of image he wanted--a movie director beside him on the night of the primary."

"It was a tremendous sense of loss. I had spent my life dealing with make-believe. And here was somebody trying to make a huge difference in people's lives. I was really left very disillusioned, and went through a period of deep depression." --From The New York Times, March 24, 1994.

About signing on to direct Marlon Brando in "The Island of Dr Moreau": "We missed each other during our careers. I've worked with a lot of people and I always thought I really wanted to work with Brando before we both hang it up. I said that during an interview with Australian TV. Lo and behold, two weeks later the phone call came asking, 'Would you like to take over this movie?'" --John Frankenheimer quoted in Entertainment Today, August 23-29, 1996.

On what TV offers that film doesn't: "First it offers me more time to tell a story. Long form is fabulous for me. Secondly, the material that I've been lucky enough to do on these four cable movies has been controversial, cutting-edge material that I don't think would have been made into a feature film today. Certainly not a mainstream feature film, because mainstream studios aren't making that kind of material." --Frankenheimer to Buzz, August 22-28, 1997.

About the alcoholism that threatened his life as well as his career: "I had a drinking problem. It took a toll on me. And the state of mind you're in when you have a problem like that, even when you're not drunk, is the most dangerous time. Because you make decisions that are not totally in your best interest--about your life, about your career choices and everything."

He stopped drinking c. 1981. "I said, 'I can't go on like this'--I figured I'd better do something about it because otherwise I was going to die." --From The New York Times, September 14, 1998.

In May 2001, Frankenheimer addressed rumors that he was actually the biological father of film director Michael Bay. Frankenheimer admitted to a brief relationship with Bay's birth mother who later contacted the director's representatives and claimed to be pregnant. Frankenheimer reportedly payed her a sum of money (about $7500) when he learned she was expecting. After the rumors surfaced that Bay's natural father was a filmmaker, there was much speculation and Frankenheimer's name often came up. In the May 2001 interviews, the director firmly stated that he was NOT the father of Michael Bay and that it had been verified by "tests".

Companions close complete companion listing

Joanne Evans. Divorced; married her to accompany him (at the government's expense) when he entered the Air Force with understanding they would divorce when discharged.
Carolyn Miller. Married on September 22, 1954; divorced in 1961.
Evans Evans. Actor. Married c. 1961; has appeared in several of Frankenheimer's films.

Family close complete family listing

Walter Frankenheimer. Stockbroker. Of German-Jewish origins.
Helen Frankenheimer. Irish Catholic.
Lisa Jean Frankenheimer. Mother, Carolyn Miller.
Kristi Frankenheimer. Mother, Carolyn Miller.

Bibliography close complete biography

"The Cinema of John Frankenheimer" A.S. Barnes & Co. Inc.

Please support TCMDB by adding to this information.

Click here to contribute