Towering Inferno director a perfectionist

John Guillermin.
John Guillermin.

NEW YORK• John Guillermin, a prolific British director best known for blockbusters like the 1974 disaster movie The Towering Inferno and the 1976 remake of King Kong, died on Sunday at his home in Topanga, California. He was 89.

The cause was a heart attack, his wife Mary said.

In addition to big-budget extravaganzas, Guillermin (the name is French, but he pronounced it GILL-er-min) directed a raft of films in various genres from the end of the 1940s until he retired from film-making in the 1980s.

Regardless of whether he was directing a light comedy, war epic or crime drama, he had a reputation as an intense, temperamental perfectionist, notorious for screaming at cast and crew alike.

David L. Wolper, producer of the miniseries Roots, nearly fired Guillermin from The Bridge At Remagen (1969) after he upbraided the crew and told Wolper not to appear on set during a complicated scene.

But Guillermin's impeccable eye and ability to capture both intimate moments and large-scale action scenes usually overcame that reputation. In the 1970s, he attracted the attention of producers Irwin Allen and Dino De Laurentiis. The movies he directed for them would become his best known.

The first, The Towering Inferno, about a group of hapless partygoers trying to escape a conflagration inside the world's tallest skyscraper, had an all-star cast that included Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway and Fred Astaire.

The film, which cost around US$15 million to produce, a staggering amount at the time, featured some of the largest stage sets ever created, including a 30.5m-tall model of the skyscraper that was destroyed during filming.

The film brought in US$116 million at the box office and won Academy Awards for cinematography, film editing and music. Some critics said the movie would be remembered for its striking special effects, not Guillermin's direction.

"John Guillermin directed the film, but it's difficult to know exactly what he might have done aside from suggesting a few line readings," Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times.

"Movies like The Towering Inferno appear to have been less directed than physically constructed."

Though the reviews were mixed, Guillermin's next film, De Laurentiis' remake of King Kong, earned US$88 million at the box office by 1977 and received a special-achievement award for visual effects from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

After King Kong, Guillermin directed only a few more theatrical features. His version of Agatha Christie's Death On The Nile (1978) was well received. Sheena (1984) was not. The sequel King Kong Lives (1986) bombed with the critics and at the box office.

During the filming of Sheena, Guillermin's son, Michael, was killed in a car accident. Guillermin, still grieving, was reported to have behaved erratically during the filming of King Kong Lives.

His only other notable project after that was The Tracker (1988), a television western starring Kris Kristofferson.

Yvon Jean Guillermin was born in London to French expatriates on Nov 11, 1925. He grew up in England and attended Cambridge University. In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter and a granddaughter.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2015, with the headline 'Towering Inferno director a perfectionist'. Print Edition | Subscribe