John Guillermin, Director Of Classics ‘Towering Inferno,’ ‘Death On The Nile,’ Dies

Shelley Hazen - Author

Oct. 1 2015, Updated 7:21 a.m. ET

John Guillermin knew how to make a great movie with a legendary cast. Many of them are now classics: King Kong, The Towering Inferno, Death on the Nile.

Described as irascible by Charlton Heston and remembered as difficult but brilliant by colleagues, the British director died Sunday at age 89 at his Los Angeles home, friend Nick Redman of Twilight Time Movies confirmed on Facebook, Entertainment Weekly reported.

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“(John) was a tough man but a very charming man. He was every inch the Hollywood director, the Hollywood figure, but he had very much a European sensibility. He was a very urbane person, and he made some great movies.”

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Guillermin’s widow, Mary, said that her husband died mere weeks shy of his 90th birthday. She called John “a wonderful man — sensitive and passionate, full of a fierce rapture himself.” He is also survived by a daughter.

Guillermin was born to French parents in London and began his career making documentaries after attending the University of Cambridge and service in the Royal Air Force, the BBC added. John began making films in the 1940s, Variety added, and released his first feature, Torment, in 1950.

That year, he moved to Hollywood to further study film and pursue a career in movies, the Belfast Telegraph noted. Guillermin’s first Hollywood flick was made in 1958, called I Was Monty’s Double.

But John’s most famous contributions to Hollywood came in the 1970s with three films filled with the biggest stars of the day.

Building on the popularity of disaster films Airport and The Poseidon Adventure, Guillermin brought together Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, and Fred Astaire for 1974’s The Towering Inferno. The action-packed film is now a classic, a thrilling story about a fire that erupts on the 81st floor of a skyscraper.

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The film earned Guillermin Oscars for original song, film editing, and cinematography, and Golden Globes for Astaire and Flannery.

In 1976, John made King Kong, starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, a film that demonstrated just how difficult Guillermin could be to work with. Editor Ralph E. Winters recalled that the director’s frustrations boiled over one day to the point he kicked a seat until it broke. He called to apologize the next day.

Then came 1978’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic novel Death on the Nile, which included another star-studded cast: Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, David Niven, George Kennedy, and Angela Lansbury.

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Guillermin went beyond the director’s chair to act as writer and producer on Melody in the Dark, High Jinks in Society, Paper Gallows,Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, and Tarzan Goes to India. In 1986, John made his last move — a sequel to King Kong.

The awards tally across Guillermin’s career was impressive: John earned three Oscars, a Bafta, and two Golden Globes, as well as the Evening Standard British Film Award for Death On The Nile.

And his movies left an impression on many film buffs. One Facebook user left a touching message responding to the announcement of John’s death.

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“I had got to know him a bit in recent years when we released his lost gem, Rapture, on Blu-Ray. He was, even in his 80s, an irrepressible life-force, funny, cantankerous, profane, sophisticated, urbane. A gentleman of the old school, a pilot in the RAF during WWII, and later an eloquent filmmaker of taste and judgment — his movies speak for themselves, and also for him — for he is there, living inside them, his personality tumbling out in every reel.”

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[Photo Courtesy Fer Gregory / Shutterstock]


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