John Guillermin, a prolific British filmmaker who specialized in action and adventure pics including The Towering Inferno and the 1976 version of King Kong that launched Jessica Lange’s career, has died at his Los Angeles home. He was 89. His friend Nick Redman posted the news on Facebook.
Guillermin’s long career started after a stint in the Royal Air Force during World War II. He started out as a documentarian in France and ended up making a movie nearly every year — sometimes two — from 1949 into the ’80s. His movies starred some of the biggest names in the biz including Orson Welles (House Of Cards), Charlton Heston (Skyjacked), Peter O’Toole (The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England), Peter Ustinov and Bette Davis (Death On The Nile), Peter Sellers (Never Let Go, Waltz Of The Toreadors), George Peppard (The Blue Max, P.J., House Of Cards) and James Coburn (Mr. Patman). But Guillermin’s biggest successes were a pair of big-budget popcorn movies in the mid-1970s — the first so loaded with boldface names it’s tough to decide where to start in listing them.
In 1974, disaster films were the anything but at the box office. In the wake of such pics as Airport and The Poseidon Adventure, Guillerman assembled a huge cast of top stars for The Towering Inferno. Produced by Irwin Allen, the film about a horrible fire that breaks out during a party christening a huge but shoddily built skyscraper toplined Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden and Faye Dunaway. Also along for the ride were such veterans and up-and-comers as Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones (in her final role), Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, Susan Blakely and Dabney Coleman, not to mention the first big film role for O.J. Simpson. Towering Inferno‘s success helped fuel the disaster trend — Earthquake! and the Airport sequels followed — but remains arguably king of the genre.
Guillerman’s follow-up movie went even bigger, in terms of its title star. King Kong starred Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin and newcomer Lange in the iconic Fay Wray role. Dino De Laurentiis produced the flick, which opened in late December and became one of the biggest films of 1977. He followed that with Death On The Nile, in which Ustinov channeled Agatha Christie’s legendary sleuth Hercule Poirot in a tale of murder on the world’s longest river. The cast also featured Davis, David Niven, George Kennedy, Jack Warden, Mia Farrow and Angela Lansbury.
The filmmaker also made a pair of Tarzan movies — and the regrettable 1984 Sheena — along with sequels to Shaft and King Kong during his half-century career. He also directed the 1950s TV series Aggie and Sailor Of Fortune, the latter starring Lorne Greene, who would follow it with his iconic role on Bonanza.