Oscar-winning director John Schlesinger died Friday at 5:30 a.m. in Palm Springs, Calif., after a prolonged illness. The openly gay filmmaker's cinematic output included such classics as Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man, The Day of the Locust, Darling, Far From the Madding Crowd, Cold Comfort Farm, and Sunday Bloody Sunday. Schlesinger received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Director for his fourth film, Darling (1965), and went on to win the trophy for his 1969 Midnight Cowboy. He was nominated again two years later for Sunday Bloody Sunday. All three films broke ground in the presentation of gay characters and themes in mainstream cinema.
Schlesinger grew up in Hampstead, England, and studied English literature at Oxford, where he also acted in several university productions. Professionally, he began acting with several repertory companies and worked in numerous television productions. (Years later, even after establishing himself as a major filmmaker, he continued to act in such films as Twilight of the Golds and The Lost Language of Cranes.)
He made several short films for the BBC, including the acclaimed documentary Terminus, about a day in the life of a train station. That film won several awards and led to the making of Schlesinger's first feature, A Kind of Loving, starring Alan Bates. His next film, Billy Liar, gave Julie Christie her first leading role in a feature. She would go on to win a Best Actress Oscar for her work in Schlesinger's Darling. Other films directed by Schlesinger include Yanks, An Englishman Abroad (about actress Coral Browne's Moscow encounter with defected gay British spy Guy Burgess), The Falcon and the Snowman, The Believers, Madame Souzatska, The Innocent, Pacific Heights, and Eye for an Eye. Schlesinger's last feature was The Next Best Thing, starring Madonna and Rupert Everett, about a straight woman and her gay best friend and their adventures in parenthood.
In a statement Richard Gere noted, "John was the best, and the best always wanted to work with him. As a young actor I considered it an enormous privilege to be in Yanks. I still consider it one of my very best films. John's string of films in the '60s and '70s are as astonishingly good as any film made--anytime, anywhere...audacious, challenging, irascible, moving, witty, wise, and deeply personal. He was an original."
In 1970 Schlesinger was made CBE (Commander of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II. He is survived by his partner of 30 years, photographer Michael Childers; his brother, Roger Schlesinger; and his sister, Hilary Schlesinger. There will be a private Jewish memorial service in London for family next week. There will be public memorials in Los Angeles and London in late September.
Donations in Schlesinger's memory may be made to Project Angel Food in Los Angeles or the Motion Picture and Television Fund in Woodland Hills, Calif.