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Robert Mulligan: Film and television director best known for 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

Wednesday 24 December 2008 01:00 GMT

Robert Mulligan's film version of Harper Lee's moving courtroom drama, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Film and Best Director. Though Mulligan and the movie lost to David Lean and Lawrence of Arabia, the film has endured as a classic, and his leading man, Gregory Peck, won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the dogged lawyer Atticus Finch, a character named by the American Film Institute as the most loved fictional figure in the history of film.

Peck, like several other players, including Steve McQueen, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood, would act more than once with the director, for though auteurists lament the lack of a personal stamp on his films, Mulligan's flair with actors was notable. He was particularly adept at guiding young players, such as Mary Badham and Philip Alford, who in To Kill a Mockingbird play the two children in 1930s Alabama who witness their lawyer father defending a black man against a bigoted accusation of rape.

Other films featuring adolescents are among the director's most rewarding, including Summer of '42 (1971), in which a young boy falls in love with an older woman whose husband is away at war; Clara's Heart (1988), which depicts a white boy bonding with his family's Jamaican maid; and The Man in the Moon, (1991) in which Reese Witherspoon made her screen debut as a 14-year old who falls in love with the young man who loves her sister.

Born in New York's Bronx district in 1925, Mulligan was the son of a policeman of Irish extraction – his younger brother, Richard Mulligan, became an actor and is remembered as Burt Campbell in the sitcom Soap. He studied at Fordham University with the intention of becoming a priest, but the Second World War interrupted his theological studies. After serving as a radio operator with the Marines, he returned to civilian life as a copy-boy on The New York Times, then as a messenger at the CBS television studio.

He rose to become one of the foremost directors of television drama on such series as Playhouse 90 and Suspense, his many acclaimed productions including Gore Vidal's The Death of Billy the Kid (1955) starring Paul Newman, Horton Foote's The Travelling Lady (1957) with Kim Stanley and Wendy Hiller, and a star-studded TV version of A Tale of Two Cities (1958) which signifies why the period is often referred to as a golden age – the players included James Donald as Sydney Carton, with Max Adrian, Gracie Fields, Denholm Elliott, George C. Scott, Agnes Moorehead and Rosemary Harris in the cast. Mulligan won an Emmy for directing The Moon and Sixpence (1959), in which Sir Laurence Olivier made his American TV debut.

Teaming up with the producer Alan J. Pakula, Mulligan made his first film for the cinema, Fear Strikes Out (1957), starring another newcomer from TV, Anthony Perkins, as the baseball star Jimmy Piersall, who had a nervous breakdown because his father forced him into a profession for which he had no enthusiasm. Mulligan's next film, based on Garson Kanin's play The Rat Race, took a fierce look at the world of show business, with fine performances from Debbie Reynolds and Tony Curtis as a dancer and musician who share an apartment. Curtis also starred in The Great Imposter (1961), the true story of a master of disguise.

After these intensely focused character pieces, for which his television experience stood him in good stead, he demonstrated his versatility with Come September (1961), a light-hearted farce in which a mature couple (Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida) share a Roman villa with youngsters Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin.

In 1962 he and Pakula formed Pakula-Mulligan Productions, and their first film was To Kill a Mockingbird, skilfully adapted by Horton Foote from Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Afterwards came two films with Steve McQueen, Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), with Natalie Wood, and Baby, The Rain Must Fall (1965) with Lee Remick, the latter a heavy-going adaptation by Foote of the television play Mulligan had directed earlier, The Travelling Lady.

A transcription of Gavin Lambert's novel about Hollywood, Inside Daisy Clover (1966), allegedly partly based on events in the life of Judy Garland, was heavily cut by the studio and emerged as a patchy and unsatisfying film with occasionally impressive moments. Most of Mulligan's films came from literary sources, and in answer to criticism that he had no identifiable style, he replied, "Things have to sift through me. That's me up there on the screen. The shooting, the editing, the use of music – all that represents my attitude to the material."

Up The Down Staircase (1967) was a disarming comedy-drama in which Sandy Dennis starred as a teacher in a New York public school, and The Stalking Moon (1969), the last from Pakula-Mulligan Productions (Pakula himself became a director), reunited Mulligan with Gregory Peck in a leaden attempt to combine the Western and horror genres.

Summer of '42, which won him a Golden Globe Award and in which he captured beautifully the nostalgic atmosphere of the period, and The Other (1972), a chilling tale of the supernatural for which Mulligan evoked an equally convincing mood, were his final box-office hits. His career suffered from his struggle with alcoholism, but his last film, Man in the Moon (1991) saw a rewarding return to the subject of adolescence.

Tom Vallance

Robert Mulligan, film and television director: born New York 23 August 1925; married twice (three children); died Lyme, Connecticut 20 December 2008.

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