Jewish Success Stories—Sidney Lumet
Who knew that one of the greatest filmmakers in American history was a product of the Yiddish theater? Before he died in April of this year, Sidney Lumet had put together one of the longest, sturdiest careers in the history of Hollywood. It was a career studded with classic films like 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon, as well as expressions of his Jewish heritage. A great American filmmaker was also a committed Jewish one.
Lumet had begun as a director in the earliest days of American television when he was still in his twenties, shooting features like The Dreyfus Case, about the anti-Semitic legal uproar that rocked France around the turn of the last century, and an adaptation of the Broadway show The Philadelphia Story. By 1957, Lumet was directing his first feature film, 12 Angry Men, in which a persistent jury foreman played by Henry Fonda steadily, carefully convinces his fellow jurors of a young man’s innocence.
Lumet’s parents had been veterans of the Yiddish theater that had once flourished in the United States, and Lumet himself had gotten his start, at the age of five, as a bit player on the same stages. The Jewish flavor of Lumet’s earliest work experience made its way into his mature work, both in Lumet’s persistent interest in the ethnic cubbyholes of American cities, and specifically in Lumet’s Jewish characters, in The Pawnbroker, A Stranger Among Us, which was a murder mystery set in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in New York, and other films.
His name made with the success of his debut, still a staple of the American film, Lumet went on to a remarkable run of film through the 1960s that included the Eugene O’Neill adaptation Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the nuclear-warfare drama Fail-Safe, and the underrated Holocaust-themed drama The Pawnbroker, in which a pawn-shop owner (played by Rod Steiger) finds the circumstances of his run-down New York neighborhood inevitably raises memories of his experience in a concentration camp.
Unlike many of the young filmmakers he emerged alongside, Lumet’s career never experienced a letdown, or a diminishment. After The Pawnbroker, Lumet went on to make the New York dramas—grubby, energetic, enriched by their exploration of the city’s dark side—that he would still be remembered for: Serpico, Network, and The Verdict, and his critically acclaimed final film, 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a quietly assured tale of a robbery gone terribly wrong that offered the same easy mastery 12 Angry Men had, half a century prior.