April 7, 1928, is the birthdate of Alan J. Pakula, who, as either producer or director, or both, brought audiences such movies as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “All the President’s Men” and “Sophie’s Choice,” to name just a few of his more acclaimed pictures. A highly intelligent, soft-spoken man, Pakula endeared himself to the actors who worked with him for his insight and patience, and was rewarded with a number of Oscar-nominated performances.
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Alan Jay Pakula was born in the Bronx, New York, the second child of Paul Pakula and the former Jeanette Goldstein. Paul, born in Tomaszow, Poland, had come at age 6 to the United States, where he established a successful printing and advertising business. Jeanette was of Polish-Jewish descent.
My son, not a doctor
When Alan was 4, the family, which was traditional in its Jewish observance, moved from the Bronx to Long Beach, a Long Island suburb. A decade later, they were back in the city, though now on the upscale Upper West Side.
Alan attended the theater frequently, often by himself, and was taken enough by what he saw that he decided he would be an actor. His parents, however, foresaw a career in medicine, or in his father’s business, which Paul wanted to keep in the family.
With these various aspirations for their only son, Alan’s parents sent him first to the Bronx High School of Science, for gifted students. Then, for his last year of high school, he went to a prep school in Pennsylvania. He did well, and was able to attend Yale University for college.
During the summer before college, in 1945, Alan had an internship at New York theatrical agency. The job consisted mainly of delivering scripts to actors, but he took advantage of the opportunity to read them all, which, he later recalled, was when “I realized I was hooked.”
When Pakula graduated with a degree in drama in 1948, he announced his intention to move to Hollywood to become a movie director, asking his parents to subsidize his dream for up to two years. They agreed, and through a friend of his father’s, he was offered a job in the animation department at Warner Bros.
Bipolar baseball player and Mockingbird
In the evenings, Pakula directed at an amateur theater company. That led to a job offer in 1950 from a producer at MGM, who later took him with him to Paramount. His first production assignment, in 1955, was on “Fear Strikes Out,” about the real-life bipolar baseball player Jimmy Piersall, together with director Robert Mulligan.
Pakula and Mulligan got along well enough that they decided to start their own production company, whose first feature was “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in 1962. They made another five pictures together, including “Up the Down Staircase” (1967), before Pakula began directing himself.
His first feature – he directed a total of 16 – was “The Sterile Cuckoo” (1969), which starred Liza Minnelli, in an Oscar-nominated performance as an awkward college student in a troubled romance.
Working with master cinematographer Gordon Willis, Pakula then made a series of dark and ominous films about fear and power: “Klute” (1971), “Parallax View” (1974) and “All the President’s Men” (1976), the latter two of which played to viewers’ worst paranoiac concerns about Washington.
But Pakula also was good at depicting relationships, including in the 1989 “See You in the Morning,” which was in part based on his own second marriage, at age 45, to biographer Hannah Cohn Boorstin, a widow with three children, after his divorce from actress Hope Lange, with whom he already had two stepchildren.
Not all Pakula’s films were critical or commercial triumphs, but enough – including, also, “Starting Over,” “Presumed Innocent” and “The Pelican Brief” – were at least one or the other. When he died tragically at age 70, he was eulogized as one of the greats, as well as for his human decency.
Pakula met his death driving on the Long Island Expressway, on November 19, 1998, when a metal pole on the highway was flipped into the air, apparently by the car in front of him, and slammed through his windshield. He died almost instantly.