How Sidney Lumet Came Out of the Yiddish Theatre

Sidney Lumet (1924-2011) directed a long list of cherished Hollywood movies, including 12 Angry Men (1957), The Fugitive Kind (1960), A View from the Bridge (1962), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), The Pawn Broker (1964), Fail Safe (1964), Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1966), The Sea Gull (1968), The Anderson Tapes (1971), Serpico (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), The Wiz (1978), Prince of the City (1981), Deathtrap (1982), The Verdict (1982), and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), in addition to scores of others that are less well-remembered or regarded. If you’re like me, some of those on that list are among your favorite films (especially that stretch in the ’70s!). He was especially prized for his dramas and thrillers, though comedy sometimes crept in as well, and he was among the top screen interpreters of great playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, and Anton Chekov. What’s less well known is that, as in in his 1989 caper comedy Family Business, he was one of several generations engaged in the same trade.

His parents Baruch and Eugenia Lumet, were in the Yiddish theatre in Warsaw and immigrated to the U.S. prior to Sidney’s birth. His mother, a dancer, passed away when he was a child. Baruch acted, produced and directed in New York’s Yiddish theatre, and later on Broadway and in films, such as The KIller Shrews (1959), The Pawn Broker (1964), The Group (1966), and Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1973). For several years he ran the Dallas Institute of Performing Arts, where Jayne Mansfield and Tobe Hooper were among his acolytes.

Consequently, Sidney himself started out as a child actor in the Yiddish theatre with his father. It was to be the foundation of all his work going forward, his Jewish identity an important prism through which to view his entire canon. The original production of Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End (1935) was the first of nine Broadway plays Lumet acted in prior to World War Two. After four years of service in the army he returned to act in two more, A Flag is Born (1946) and Seeds in the Wind (1948). In 1947 he was in the very first class of pupils at the Actor’s Studio. From there, he began to direct off-Broadway, in summer stock and in his own workshops, leading to work in live television drama, where he rapidly became one of the industry’s top directors. His TV work included a 1958 adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1958), John Brown’s Raid (1960), The Sacco-Vanzetti Story (1960), The Iceman Cometh (1960), and Paddy Chayefsky’s The Dybbuk (1960).

Lumet had two daughters with his third wife Gail Jones, who was Lena Horne’s daughter. Amy was briefly married to the conservative satirist P.J. O’Rourke. Jenny wrote the 2008 film Rachel Getting Married, directed by Jonathan Demme, and it sure seems pretty autobiographical. In recent years she has been a writer and producer on several of the Star Trek series. She was married to Bobby Cannevale for nearly a decade; their son Jake is also an actor.

For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,