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Alan Pakula: An Actor’s Director

Legacy.com / Nick Ehrhardt

Alan Pakula: An Actor’s Director

The name Alan J. Pakula might not mean much until you hear the list of his films he was involved with: To Kill a Mockingbird (producer, 1962), Klute (producer, 1971), All the Presidents Men (director, 1976) and Pelican Brief (producer, director, writer 1993). For more than 30 years Pakula produced and/or directed some of the most enduring tales and complex characters of our time.

Pakula died 15 years ago today in a bizarre car accident – his vehicle was struck by a steel rod – while driving home on the Long Island Expressway. He was 70 and working on the screenplay for No Ordinary Time, a film about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s White House years.

Pakula was particularly interested in the complexity, emotions and motivations of characters. He had considered, for a time, becoming a psychiatrist. In an interview shortly after Pakula’s death, his biographer Jared Brown (Alan J. Pakula: His Films and His Life, 2005) said that when Pakula sat next to people on planes he would often tell them he was a psychiatrist, not a film director. Julia Roberts, who starred in The Pelican Brief, called him “a psychiatrist and a director.”

“He would allow you your time and the freedom to find things in the material,” she was quoted as saying. “He knew when to give me my space or when to squeeze my hand.''

Pakula, bearded and bespectacled, was known as an actor’s director for good reason. The actors who worked with him benefited from his devotion to character development:

• Liza Minnelli won an Oscar nomination for her role in the first picture he directed, The Sterile Cuckoo (1969).

• Jane Fonda won an Oscar for her role in Klute (1971).

Gregory Peck won an Oscar for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

• Meryl Streep won an Oscar for her role in Sophie’s Choice (1982).

• Jason Robards won an Oscar for his role in All the President’s Men (1976).

To Kill a Mockingbird, Pakula’s second film as a producer, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, and Pakula was also nominated for directing All the President's Men and for his screenplay for Sophie's Choice, but never won. His other movies include Love with the Proper Stranger, The Parallax View, and Presumed Innocent. Actress Candice Bergen, who starred in Starting Over (1979), said Pakula was ''incredibly supportive and would give you the courage you needed,'' according to his obituary in The New York Times. Harrison Ford, who starred in Pakula's last movie, The Devil's Own, called him “a natural guide to inner realms. As a writer and a director, he was always concerned with evolving emotionally. He was an elegant man.''

As a director, Pakula was known to give his actors freedom to improvise and explore their characters. He was also known for directing without shoes, padding about the set in his socks.

"He had a kind of childlike quality in the best sense of the word," screenwriter David Aaron Cohen said in an interview after Pakula’s death.

Pakula was born in the Bronx, attended the Hill School in Pennsylvania and majored in drama at Yale University. His first Hollywood job was as an assistant in the cartoon department at Warner Brothers.

Pakula "really wasn’t a person who was a self-promoter," said Brown, his biographer. "He was interested in his work … but not so much in pushing himself. … He wanted the attention to be on the actors and the development of the plot."

Pakula was married to the actress Hope Lange from 1963 until their divorce in 1971. He married Hannah Cohn Boorstin in 1978. She, her three children and five grandchildren survived him.

Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief." Find her on Google+.