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Richard C. Sarafian dies at 83; directed cult film 'Vanishing Point'

Richard C. Sarafian directed numerous films and TV shows, including episodes of 'Twilight Zone,' 'Gunsmoke' and 'Batman.'

September 18, 2013|By Steve Chawkins
  • Director Richard Sarafian on the set of "Vanishing Point."
Director Richard Sarafian on the set of "Vanishing Point." (Family photo )

Richard C. Sarafian, a Hollywood director best known for the speed-addled saga of squealing brakes and existential angst chronicled in the 1971 cult film "Vanishing Point," died Wednesday. He was 83.

Sarafian was recovering from a broken back when he contracted pneumonia, family members said.

He directed numerous films and, earlier in his career, TV shows that included episodes of "Gunsmoke," "The Twilight Zone" and "Batman." He also acted, appearing as hitman Vinnie in the Warren Beatty satire "Bulworth" and gangster Jack Dragna in Beatty's "Bugsy."

In "Dr. Doolittle 2," he did a comic turn as the voice of the God Beaver, a don of the dam who ran the forest like a Corleone with buck teeth.

But it was "Vanishing Point," the story of a tough guy named Kowalski and his frenzied road trip from Denver to San Francisco, that proved to be Sarafian's most enduring work.

"I had absolutely no idea that this thing would survive all these years," he told the website movieweb.com in 2009. "We worked hard in the hot sun and we partied at night. You just hope, like everything, that you blow the audience a few kisses and try to fulfill your vision of what it's about … freedom, an endless road, and let the cards fall where they may."

In Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof," the director gave Sarafian a "special thanks" credit, a bow to the influence of "Vanishing Point."

Its impact has also been felt outside the industry. In 1997, Scottish rock band Primal Scream paid tribute to Sarafian by naming an album "Vanishing Point": "It's always been a favorite of the band," leader Bobby Gillespie explained. "We love the air of paranoia and speed-freak righteousness."

In the film, ex-cop, ex-racer and Vietnam vet Kowalski, played by Barry Newman, bets his drug dealer he can deliver a supercharged 1970 Dodge Challenger to California in 15 hours. The reasons for the wager are unclear, but it triggers 90 minutes worth of screaming police cruisers and an excited, crash-by-crash radio narration from Super Soul, a blind disc jockey played by Cleavon Little. Kowalski also encounters desert hippies, a rattlesnake wrangler and an alluring, naked blonde woman on a motorcycle.

Over the years, critics have been puzzled. "Kowalski would be a contemporary Lone Ranger but for one thing," wrote Danny Peary. "He forgets to do anything heroic."

Sarafian was undeterred. "The beauty of 'Vanishing Point' was that I met the challenge to physicalize speed," he told Turner Classic Movies.

Born April 28, 1930, in New York City, Richard Caspar Sarafian was the son of Armenian immigrants. He attended New York University but "was a rotten student, drinking and carousing," he told the Armenian Reporter in 2008. "To make life easier, I took a two-point course in writing and directing pictures. I got an A!"

Serving during the Korean War as a reporter for an Army news service, he was stationed for a time in Kansas City, Mo., where he met future Hollywood director Robert Altman.

The two became pals and worked together making industrial films. When Altman directed a local play, Sarafian acted in it. The director's sister came bounding backstage after he appeared, her arms opened wide.

"Richard, Richard!" she exclaimed. "You were adequate!"

They married and had five children. Helen Joan Altman died two years ago, after divorcing Sarafian and later remarrying him.

Sarafian got his start in TV as Altman's assistant but quickly established himself.

The 1963 "Twilight Zone" "Living Doll" episode was one of his more famous efforts.

After watching the story of the murderous Talky Tina doll, Sarafian's son Deran sought comfort from his parents.

"That was the most horrible thing I've ever seen," he told them.

His mother sympathized.

"By the way," she told him, "your father directed it."

Sarafian also directed "Man in the Wilderness," "The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing," "Run Wild, Run Free" and other movies. His first feature film, "Andy," was the story of a developmentally disabled man scraping by in New York City.

In addition to Deran Sarafian, he is survived by sons Damon, Richard Jr. and Tedi; and daughter Catherine. All work in the film industry.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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