Over the past 30 years, William Friedkin has directed such acclaimed films as "The French Connection," for which he won the Oscar, "The Exorcist," "The Night They Raided Minsky's" and "Boys in the Band."
But it's his latest project--a remake of the 1957 classic "12 Angry Men"--that holds a new special place in his heart.
"It was a pure experience working with a great piece of material with a great cast," Friedkin explains. "Therefore, it is probably the most memorable experience I've ever had."
"12 Angry Men," premiering Sunday on Showtime, deals with jurors deliberating a death-penalty case in which a young Latino man is accused of murder.
The jury deciding the verdict represents all walks of life. Juror No. 10 (Mykelti Williamson) is an outspoken bigot who was kicked out of the Nation of Islam. Juror No. 4 (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is a proper stockbroker. Juror No. 9 (Hume Cronyn) is an elderly man with health problems. Juror No. 11 (Edward James Olmos) is a European watchmaker who believes in justice. Juror No. 2 (Ossie Davis) is a bank clerk. Juror No. 3 (George C. Scott) is full of rage and venom.
From the outset, 11 of the jurors believe the youth should be convicted. But well-dressed Juror No. 8 (Jack Lemmon) isn't sure of the boy's guilt. His doubt fuels the drama.
Penned by Reginald Rose, "12 Angry Men' originally debuted to great acclaim as a live TV drama in 1954 on CBS' "Studio One." The teleplay, which won an Emmy Award that year, starred Robert Cummings as Juror No. 8 and Franchot Tone as No. 3. Three years later, Rose adapted "Men" for the big screen, with Henry Fonda as No. 8 and Lee J. Cobb as No. 3. Directed by Sidney Lumet, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture of the year.
"I like '12 Angry Men,' " says Rose. "It has served me well."
Rose came up with the idea for the teleplay after serving on a jury in 1954. "It was so formal back then," he says. "I was so impressed. I had never been in a courtroom before. There was a terrible battle in the jury room over the verdict. We argued and screamed for 8 hours. It was 12 white men, which was what most juries were then. I said [to myself], 'What a wonderful situation for a one-hour television play that takes place in real time.' I invented the case and I invented the characters."
For the remake, Friedkin rehearsed his cast for eight days and then shot the movie in sequence in just two weeks. "It was all hand-held cameras--two, sometimes only one. ... I wanted a lot of spontaneity. I wasn't going for perfection; I was going for realism."
Lemmon says making the movie was exciting for the cast, which also included Courtney B. Vance, William Petersen, Dorian Harewood, Tony Danza and James Gandolfini. "We loved everybody else in the cast as actors," he explains. "Even if you weren't in the shot, everybody was on the set watching."
The two-time Oscar winner was a fan of the 1957 Lumet film, but took a completely different approach to playing No. 8 than Fonda did. "I felt from the very beginning in Hank's portrayal that [he felt the kid was not guilty]," Lemmon says. "This is the way he felt and he knew what he had to try to do. Whereas [in my interpretation], I didn't honestly know [if he was innocent]."
Friedkin came up with the idea of remaking "Men" during the height of the O.J. Simpson trial, two years ago after showing the film to his then-12-year-old son and his friends, who wanted to know more about the justice system .
"At that time," he says, "I was looking at five or six lame scripts that had been offered me, wondering why they don't write them like this anymore. I looked at this and said, 'I bet I could put together a really great cast and do this today.' "
Friedkin talked with Rose about perhaps adding women to the piece.
"Having women, you can't call it '12 Angry Men,' " Rose says.
Plus, Rose would have had to have done major rewrites to the script, instead of just updating cultural references and adding a few lines about No. 10's association with the Nation of Islam.
(Friedkin, though, did manage to cast a woman in "Men." Mary McDonell plays the judge in the opening sequence.)
"This is really about guys venting at each other," Friedkin says. "I wanted to keep the title and the piece as it was. The jury is a metaphor for the behavior of men."
Rose and Friedkin did agree that the jury should be racially mixed. The most interesting casting choice was to have an African American play the jury whose bigotry toward the Latino defendant shows through. "You never see a member of a minority playing a racist," Friedkin says.
"I thought making Mykelti a bigot was absolutely fascinating," Lemmon adds.
But the role took its toll on Williamson.
"It was the hardest thing I ever had to do," he says. "I figured it would be like any other job: You would do your research, really lock on your character and surrender yourself to the character. But I had no idea how ugly of an environment I would have to exist in in order to bring the reality of the character onto the screen."
Wiliamson was besieged daily with bad headaches. "I didn't like the character," he explains. "I had a hard time looking people in the eye when I was working because I had all of these racist thoughts in my head. I was so ashamed of myself. The night after we wrapped, I went home, had a glass of wine and cried [for] over an hour. I was so ashamed. I hope my Latino brothers and sisters understand that it is a performance only, nothing more than that."
\o7 "12 Angry Men" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime.\f7