Back in 1999 director Sidney Lumet sat down for a three hour interview about his life and career in television.
He later went on to make his name as a film director with such films as 12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976) and The Verdict (1982).
But his background in theatre and television were a big influence on his subsequent work and this lengthy discussion is a fascinating insight into his early career.
The conversation with Ralph Engelmen in 1999 for the Archive of American Television covered his growing up during the Depression, his early work in theater and the pioneering days of television, the era of McCarthyism and his subsequent transition to feature films.
- His background and early years in Yiddish theatre growing up during the Depression
- A party involving Michael Jackson and Brooke Shields
- The influence of Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943)
- How he became an expert in electronics and radar.
- Actor training
- The thread between modern playwrights and ancient Greek drama
- Why early television recruited people from the theater
- How he got hired by CBS in 1950 before he even owned a TV
- Working as an assistant to then-director Yul Brynner
- How the production technology of early TV worked.
- The early live TV dramas of the 1950s
- How audio was recorded in early television (no radio mics!)
- Working with Walter Cronkite
- Camera interview techniques
- Working with James Dean
- How the discipline of TV served him well in later years
- The legendary CBS news team and the Blacklist
- How he was visited by two FBI agents (who actually wore fedoras) during the Second Red Scare
- The Blacklisted writers who formed a co-op
- Actors who were effectively banned during this period
- How rumours quickly spread
- His return to Broadway and how Henry Fonda spotted him for 12 Angry Men
- The origins of 12 Angry Men
- Differences between working in film and TV
- His encyclopaedic knowledge of camera lenses
- How TV cameras used multiple lenses and subsequently proved great training for movies
- His approach to working with actors
- How directing is distilling a piece to a core theme
- The importance of flexibility
- The painful process of acting
- How the lack of interior studio space in New York boosted TV production in LA.
- His first experiences with videotape
- The differences between working on videotape and film
- How video is ‘far superior’ to film (remember, this was 1999!)
- The reason live TV dramas died out
- The influence of money on quality TV shows (‘the common denominator became more common’)
- How he directed ‘The Howard Beale Show’ live when he shot Network (1976)
- How everything in that film has actually happened …except killing someone
- How TV network rivalries actually helped boost the appeal of Network (they all thought it was about a rival)
- The isolating experience of watching TV compared to cinema or sports
- How TV essentially stopped the Vietnam War and advice for people starting out
It’s a bit of a beast to sit through in one go, so it might be worth watching in half hour chunks.