Richard C. Sarafian, the versatile Armenian-American director/actor whose most celebrated film, the exhilaratingly existential chase drama, Vanishing Point, is still one of the most actively discussed road films today, died on September 18, 2013 of pneumonia in Los Angeles. He was 83.
Richard Caspar Sarafian was born on April 28, 1930, in the Bronx, NY. The son of Armenian immigrants, he attended New York University, supporting himself as a bartender before discovering a talent for film taking a course in writing and directing. After the Korean War, he found work as a journalist for the U.S. Army and was stationed in Kansas City, Mo., living in a downtown apartment where he happened to befriend a neighbor, Robert Altman.
It was that fortunate friendship that introduced Sarafian to the film industry. Altman had kicked off his career as a director working for Calvin Productions, a film company that specialized in early industrials and educational dramas and he offered Sarafian work as an actor, script supervisor and director. You can see an example of their work, The Magic Bond (1955), here. After Sarafian married Altman’s sister, Helen (Joan) Altman, he followed Bob Altman to Hollywood in 1958 to begin his career in television.
It took a few years, working under Altman to gain experience, but by the early 1960s, Sarafian was directing steadily in television, being particularly adept at Westerns (Maverick, Lawman, The Gallant Men) before moving onto more contemporary fare (77 Sunset Strip, Twilight Zone – the memorable “Living Doll” – and several episodes of I Spy). It was by the mid-60s that he moved into film, aided by a mentorship program offered by Universal Studios. With just $30,000, he made Andy (1965), a quiet, thoughtful character study of a mentally impaired man and his encounters in New York.
A trip to England saw him polish his directing style with Run Wild, Run Free, (1969), a supple, unsentimental family film with Mark Lester (fresh off his triumph in Oliver) as a boy overcoming autism; and Fragment of Fear (1970), a solid psychological chiller with David Hemmings trying to solve his aunt’s murder. The following year, Sarafian directed two more films: The brooding survivalist drama, Man in the Wilderness with a towering performance by Richard Harris; and of course, the glorious existential chase classic – Vanishing Point. The latter has proven particularly endearing to a devoted cult of writers, film academics and car aficionados, and rightfully so. The plot regards a former racing driver named Kowalski, who must deliver a 1958 Ford Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in 15 hours. The motive is never given, but the trip to the destination, overseen by a blind disc jockey (Cleavon Little) is filled with hot hitchhikers and hippies, not to mention terrific chase scenes with cops and rivals.
“Why Kowalski [Barry Newman] was forced into his situation? He was just passing through life like an elliptical band, ending up in the same place where he started,” stated Sarafian for an interview with Turner Classic Movies. “I had no linear concepts for this one. I loved the ambiguity of it all, and fact that it makes people think and apply their own value system into it.” The result was pure pulsation and thought provocation in every frame of its 99 minutes.
He spent the rest of the decade with some interesting material, like the romantic-comedy western The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing with Burt Reynolds and the Vietnam allegory The Lolly Madonna Wars (both 1973) with Rod Steiger, but by the end of the decade, he had returned to television.
By the 1990s, his career developed some more shadings as he became a popular character actor. Films such as Warren Beatty’s biopic Bugsy (1991); the salacious girl bonding of Bound, (1996); with Beatty again in the political satire Bulworth (1998); and opposite Martin Lawrence in Blue Streak (1999). He also did memorable voice work: as the Mafioso God Beaver in Dr. Doolittle 2 (2003) and as a set of decayed teeth in the bizarre cult short, Reeling (2007). He spent the final years of his life at his home in Brentwood, giving interviews for fans, film magazines and documentary crews about his life’s work. His wife, Joan Sarafian, died in 2011, but his children survive him: sons, Deran Sarafian, Damon, Richard Jr. and Tedi; and a daughter, Catherine. All of who work in the film industry.
Vanishing Point aside, there was so much more to Sarafian’s work. Here I list five of my favourite moments of the man:
1. “Living Doll” (The Twilight Zone) 1963
Little Christie just received a doll as a gift from her mother, much to her stepfather’s (Telly Savalas) contempt (he thinks it’s a waste of money). In fact, his contempt is so palpable, that even the doll, “Talky Tina,” takes offense (“My name is Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you!”). What could have been a very in-joke premise instead became not just a memorable episode, but also one of the very best of the series. Sarafian knew the power of taut subversiveness, and scenes such as the tight close-ups of Savalas trying to break open Tina’s head with a buzz saw, and subtle cuts to Tina’s rolling eyes are unsettling in the best Rod Serling sense. Also, by allowing Savalas to play the role with an off-handed, almost obtuse viciousness, he made his character believable and sympathetic, right up to his tragic end.
2. Andy (1965)
Shot on a miniscule budget, Sarafian’s first theatrical effort is a quiet, but immensely caring character study of a mentally impaired man and the various people he encounters in 24 hours in NYC. What you see here is the director’s talent to draw sincere performances by nearly all (save for Norman Alden as Andy, who is just a touch self-conscious). Standouts include Ann Wedgeworth as a seductive barfly and Tamara Daykarhanova as his reflective mother…poignant, but mercifully, never maudlin.
3. Fragment of Fear (1970)
A reformed drug addict (David Hemmings) discovers that his aunt who has been helping reformed criminals in Italy has been brutally murdered. He tries to investigate, but things are not as they seem as suspicious callers and indifferent police officers start calling to judge his sanity. This is an underrated psychological chiller with some prime action sequences, moody camera work (courtesy of Oswald Morris), and intriguing direction from Sarafian, who isn’t afraid to play with off-centered framing, zooms, and languid long takes to enhance the atmosphere and malevolence that permeates the characters and film. Also, the performances are first rate, especially Hemmings as the emotionally tortured lead and there is stalwart support courtesy of classic English supporting players such as Dame Flora Robson, Wilfred Hyde-White and Arthur Lowe.
4. The Gangster Chronicles (1981)
This telefilm might have its limitations, for network television back then could crimp your style with budget and censor issues, but that didn’t stop Sarafian from producing something quite smart, stylish and enjoyable. The story of the New York Mafia’s Siegel, Lasker and Luciano may not be blindingly original, but this director infuses the material with tremendous energy, casting a group of charismatic up-and-comers (Joe Penny, Michael Nouri, Madeleine Stowe), fine period detail and swift pacing. If you can catch it on Netflix, do so…it’s a testament to Sarafian’s excellent, attentive professionalism.
5. Bugsy (1991)
We’re including this memorable acting nod that most of you are aware of – as gangster Jack Dragma, who dared to skim money off Bugsy Siegel (Warren Beatty) and was forced to get on knees and bark like a dog for obedience. The intensity and fear Sarafian brings to this moment is singular. But we won’t belabour the point – here’s a clip.
Michael T. Toole is a film journalist and filmmaker. He spent ten years writing for the Turner Classic Movies website and is currently working on a book on Harry Rapf. His short films can be seen here.