John Schlesinger

Film, opera and theatre director

Born: 16 February, 1926, in London

Died: 25 July, 2003, in Palm Springs, aged 77

FROM the beginning, John Schlesinger made an impact. His early films displayed an earthiness and realism which, until then, had been absent in movies. He confronted social and domestic issues with a courage that won him an Oscar for Midnight Cowboy and a nomination for Sunday Bloody Sunday. Both films explored homosexuality in an enlightened, adult manner. Schlesinger, himself gay, was, throughout his career, keen to confront bigotry. "I am terribly concerned about people and the limitation of freedom," he once said.

He was an associate director at the National Theatre and directed some spectacular also responsible for many important television dramas - most notably Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution. Schlesinger was a refined and gentle man who was instantly recognisable in the studio: burly, with a shining bald head, an elegant white beard and a winning smile that calmed recalcitrant divas, stars and cameramen in a trice.

Schlesinger was educated at Uppingham and Balliol College, Oxford. He did his National Service with the entertainment unit, which also included Stanley Baxter and Kenneth Williams. He appeared in several British movies, but in 1958 he joined the BBC as a director of the award-winning early-evening programme Tonight and then, a few years later, joined the arts department, making several programmes for Monitor.

During these years he made a successful documentary about Waterloo Station in London which won an award at the Venice Festival of 1960.

His first major film was A Kind of Loving and it won him considerable acclaim. He joined the young British film directors, such as Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson, who were depicting life in the raw. In A Kind of Loving, the male character (Alan Bates) gets his girlfriend pregnant - that alone caused a storm. A string of hits followed, including Billy Liar, which captured the essence of everyday northern life with a vivid realism.

Tom Courtney was given his first major role, as was another Schlesinger favourite, Julie Christie. The director captured the sexual liberation of the time in Darling (1965) and propelled Christie to stardom and an Oscar. Swinging London was portrayed through Christie’s deft realisation of a model somewhat adrift in society. Schlesinger then moved into a period film with Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd with resounding performances from Bates, Christie and Peter Finch. Although the film looked beautiful and is a wonderful evocation of rural life, Hardy specialists felt it did not get to the heart of the original.

Schlesinger, however, had a most exciting offer to consider - his first from Hollywood. It was an offbeat script about two down and outs in New York, with an undercurrent of homosexuality in the story line - another taboo subject for the time. His decision to cast John Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy was inspired. He directed some magnificent scenes on Voight’s bus journey across America with a delicate touch and the scenes in New York remain realistically honest and depressing. The film was shown on television earlier this year and still packs quite a punch.

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) proved an equally incisive film. It was a triangle of love between Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch, who both were having an affair with a young man (Murray Head). Once again Schlesinger confronted the homosexual situation head on with a lengthy (and very controversial) kiss between the two men. The director simply argued: "I wanted to express myself publicly." As in Midnight Cowboy (which featured the song Windmills of Your Mind) Schlesinger's choice of music (the trio from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte) reflected the drama ideally.

It had been a decade of unremitting success and Schlesinger was in much demand. However, his sure-footed touch seemed to desert him for a few years. The Day of the Locusts, Marathon Man (despite starring Hoffman and Olivier) and Yanks (introducing Richard Gere) were not the smash hits that he might have expected.

At this time, he was asked to direct at the National Theatre and he had two immediate successes. He directed a strident production of Shaw’s Heartbreak House with Kate Nelligan in 1975, and two years later John Gielgud was his "benevolently elated" Julius Caesar.

He never returned to the NT but directed Timon of Athens at the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1980 the Royal Opera asked him to direct Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman with a starry cast lead by Placido Domingo. It was a magnificent production and confirmed that Schlesinger had not lost his touch for style or striking visual originality. He returned to the Royal Opera in 1984 for a spectacular production of Der Rosenkavalier conducted by Georg Solti.

His later films were charming but never quite at the cutting edge. Honky Tonk Freeway was a half-hearted comedy, while Madame Sousatzka (Shirley Maclaine), Pacific Heights and The Innocent all failed to make much impact at the box office. The same was true of his final movie, The Next Best Thing (with Madonna and Rupert Everett), in 2000.

As if to show he could adapt, he had accepted an offer in 1980 to directed Rattigan’s Separate Tables (with Bates and Christie) for BBC television. This was followed in 1983 by An Englishman Abroad, about the actress Coral Browne’s encounter with Guy Burgess in Moscow in the 1950s. Schlesinger captured the very essence of Russia - by moving the crew to Dundee and Glasgow. The outside of a Moscow theatre was, in fact, Dundee’s Caird Hall, the British Embassy was the city hall in Glasgow and street scenes were shot near the suspension bridge over the Clyde ... "luckily, in a snowstorm," Bennett wrote.

A Question of Attribution (1991) saw Schlesinger at his most subtle and imaginative, with the Queen (Prunella Scales) questioning Anthony Blunt (James Fox) about a dodgy Titian: it made for riveting television. Schlesinger then made Cold Comfort Farm (1995) and directed many commercials.

To some surprise, he was in charge of John Major’s 1992 general election broadcast in which the then prime minister revisited his childhood home in Brixton.

In 1990 Schlesinger returned to opera for one of the most sumptuous productions. He had been asked by Herbert von Karajan to direct Domingo in a grand production of Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera at Salzburg. It was assumed it would be the conductor’s final opera.

Von Karajan was still the autocrat but the two got on well. Alas the conductor died a day before the dress rehearsal. Pandemonium broke out as the administrators searched for another conductor. Solti agreed to take over and, despite the huge pressure, Schlesinger kept very cool and far away from the cameras.

In 2000 he directed Britten’s Peter Grimes at La Scala and Los Angeles, but by then he was a ailing. He suffered a stroke the following year which prevented him from attending a BAFTA ceremony to celebrate his career. He was made a CBE in 1970 and is survived by his partner of more than 30 years, the photographer Michael Childers.