Daniel Petrie

Award-winning film and TV director
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The Independent Online

The director Daniel Petrie had a great critical success with his second film, an adaptation of the hit play A Raisin in the Sun (1961), starring Sidney Poitier, but television was to prove the medium in which he did his most distinguished work, including such outstanding TV films as Sybil (1976) and My Name is Bill W (1989) and two Emmy Award-winning mini-series about the Roosevelts.

Daniel Petrie, film director: born Glace Bay, Nova Scotia 26 November 1920; married 1947 Dorothea Gundry (two sons, two daughters); died Los Angeles 22 August 2004.

The director Daniel Petrie had a great critical success with his second film, an adaptation of the hit play A Raisin in the Sun (1961), starring Sidney Poitier, but television was to prove the medium in which he did his most distinguished work, including such outstanding TV films as Sybil (1976) and My Name is Bill W (1989) and two Emmy Award-winning mini-series about the Roosevelts.

He was happiest dealing with real-life subjects or matters of social concern, and was noted for his handling of actors - among those he directed were Paul Newman, Richard Burton, Susan Hayward, Sir Laurence Olivier, Jane Alexander, Burt Lancaster, Ellen Burstyn and Jason Robards.

Born in Glace Bay, in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1920, Petrie was educated at St Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. After serving with the Canadian Army in the Second World War, he moved to New York in 1945. He made his Broadway début as an actor with a small role in the military comedy Kiss Them for Me (1945), the play in which Judy Holliday first attracted major attention. In 1950 he moved into television as a director, his early work including the live anthology series Robert Montgomery Presents and Somerset Maugham Theatre.

In 1962 he made his first film, The Bramble Bush, starring Richard Burton as a doctor who returns to the small New England town of his birth to tend a dying friend and finds smouldering scandals and passions. Several critics praised Petrie for doing what he could with the over-heated material.

His next film won him less qualified acclaim. Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun had been a major Broadway hit in 1959 starring Sidney Poitier as a young man whose mother (Claudia McNeil) hopes to use the money from her late husband's life insurance policy to move her family out of the black ghetto in Chicago. After Poitier takes the money to invest in a liquor store and his partner makes off with the funds, the family unite to determine that with hard work and sacrifice they will go ahead and move anyway.

It was a powerful, moving drama and Hansberry herself adapted it for the screen. Working with seven of the original cast members, including Poitier, McNeil, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands, Petrie did a sterling job of keeping the stagebound piece cinematic, and it is generally considered his finest work for the big screen.

His next movie, The Main Attraction (1962), a circus drama filmed in the UK, was an attempt by the teen singing idol Pat Boone to shed his clean-cut image, and it was a total misfire. Stolen Hours (1963) was a pointless remake of the Bette Davis classic Dark Victory (1939). The Idol (1966) was an embarrassing attempt at "swinging Sixties" melodrama, and evidence that when the material was weak Petrie had a tendency to overcompensate by encouraging florid performances.

Petrie's first film comedy was The Spy with a Cold Nose (1966), in which a bulldog equipped with a radio transmitter is given to the Russian prime minister by British intelligence. He concentrated on television for the next few years, returning to film with The Neptune Factor (1973), an undistinguished undersea adventure. His next two films, Buster and Billie (1974) and Lifeguard (1976), were sensitive essays that deserved more success than they had.

It was back to steamy sex for The Betsy (1978), adapted from Harold Robbins's raunchy best-seller. Its principal point of interest was the casting of Laurence Olivier in the leading role, prompting Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice to comment, "The spectacle of Sir Laurence, the lion of acting, cavorting on the screen like an old goat is a bit of breathtaking sacrilege that will undoubtedly sell tickets." Pauline Kael in The New Yorker was mischievously more positive, stating, "One begins to perceive the secret of his greatness: Laurence Olivier dares to be foolish. In The Betsy, he keeps on acting after everyone else has given up." Olivier himself stated that he enjoyed himself in the role. "It was a filthily vulgar part, the most awful character I've ever played in my life, and I enjoyed it highly."

In Resurrection (1980) Petrie steered Ellen Burstyn to an acclaimed performance as a woman who discovers she has the power to heal the sick. Fort Apache: the Bronx (1981), a hard-hitting police yarn starring Paul Newman, had the virtues and faults of several Petrie films. Variety said, "Driving relentlessly to make points that are almost pointless, it is a very patchy picture, strong on dialogue and acting and exceedingly weak on story."

Petrie returned to Nova Scotia to film The Bay Boy (1984), which he both wrote and directed, an autobiographical drama depicting his early life in the remote area of Glace Bay. It won Genie awards (Canada's equivalent to the Oscar) for best film and best screenplay. Square Dance (1986) was distinguished by Jane Alexander's performance as a neglectful mother, but there is little to be said for Petrie's subsequent films.

It is for his television work that Petrie will be most fondly remembered. His award-winner The Dollmaker starred Jane Fonda as a farmer's wife who has to become the breadwinner during the Second World War. Petrie won the Peabody Award for Sybil (1976), an outstanding television drama which won an Emmy for Sally Field's uncompromising performance.

Harry S. Truman: plain speaking (1976) was the first of several political biopics directed by Petrie. His mini- series Eleanor and Franklin (1976) was a loving transcription of Joseph P. Lash's Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Petrie won an Emmy for his direction, and the following year he won another for a sequel, Eleanor and Franklin: the White House years. Later he made Kissinger and Nixon (1995).

He received Emmy nominations for five more TV movies, including the powerfully anti-capital-punishment work The Execution of Raymond Graham (1986) and My Name is Bill W (1989), in which James Woods gave a riveting performance as Bill Wilson, the man who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous. Petrie's son Daniel said, "There's a common thread in all of his work of a real concern for the human condition."

Tom Vallance



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