Unsung Auteurs: Daniel Petrie Sr.

October 7, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: Daniel Petrie Sr., a hard-working, highly prolific filmmaker who never shied away from difficult subject matter.

Like several other Unsung Auteurs that have appeared in this regular feature (Paul Wendkos, Lamont Johnson, Stewart Raffill), late director Daniel Petrie Sr. has likely lacked the appropriate recognition and celebration due to the wildly varying genres in which he worked, as well as the fact that so much of his effort was concentrated on the humble, much maligned world of the television film. Daniel Petrie Sr., however, has a long, rambling resume that is bursting at the seams with fine films, while obvious through-lines can be tracked through said films, with the director showing a true affinity for small, human stories (often with difficult subject matter) and the ability to get the absolute best out of his performers. His continual genre dabbling, however, points also at a thematically curious director always willing to flex his creative muscles in different ways.

Daniel Petrie Sr. Petrie was born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada, to Mary Anne (née Campbell) and William Mark Petrie, a soft-drink manufacturer. Moving away from the family business, Petrie – who had also served as a lieutenant in the Canadian Army during WW2 – achieved a Bachelor Of Arts in Communications at St. Francis Xavier University. Petrie left Canada for the United States in 1945, where he completed a Masters in adult education at Columbia University. Not challenged by his college workload, Petrie found himself drifting in another direction. “Just to prevent being bored, I went over to CBS looking for a job,” Petrie told Province in 1978. “While I was there, somebody asked if I had ever done any acting.”

Daniel Petrie on set.

Petrie had done a little acting in Canada, and so was given a tip-off about a Broadway audition. By a mix of happenstance and talent, he got the part, featuring as the younger brother of future screen legend Richard Widmark in director Herman Shumlin’s 1945 production of Kiss Them For Me, which eventually ran to 110 performances. “After that, everything changed,” Petrie told Province. The Canadian got his student visa papers in order and moved to New York permanently. After much work in the theatre as both an actor and director, Petrie eventually moved into the burgeoning world of 1950s television. He helmed a number of live television plays (a fertile training ground for many directors who would make their mark in the 1960s and 1970s), before making his big screen debut in 1960 with The Bramble Bush, a now largely forgotten drama starring Richard Burton as a young doctor who faces a crushing moral dilemma when his dying friend begs to be euthanized.

Petrie truly arrived, however, with 1961’s highly acclaimed drama A Raisin In The Sun, a bold, bracing adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play about an African-American family pulled and torn by both inner and outer stresses. Boasting towering performances from Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil and Diana Sands, the film (which would, of course, today be more appropriately directed by an African-American) still stands as a major turning point for African-Americans in cinema, though Petrie is rarely credited for his role in forcing change and pushing for representation.

A scene from A Raisin In The Sun.

Despite the praise heaped upon A Raisin In The Sun, Petrie never truly capitalised on the success of the film. He spent the 1960s working on episodic television (The Defenders, The Doctors And The Nurses, N.Y.P.D), live television plays, and television films, as well as a small selection of curiously off-beat big screen movies: 1962’s The Main Attraction (a romantic vehicle for squeaky clean singer Pat Boone); 1963’s Stolen Hours (a hammy showcase melodrama for Susan Hayward); 1966’s The Idol (an of-its-era romantic drama starring Jennifer Jones and Michael Parks); and 1966’s The Spy With A Cold Nose (a goofy espionage comedy with Laurence Harvey and actor/director Lionel Jeffries). Radically different and all decidedly uneven, Petrie’s 1960s big screen output after A Raisin In The Sun was largely disappointing, though his work on television remained characteristically strong.

Petrie’s work during the 1970s would be more impressive. The director made his first film in Canada in 1973 when his home country set about creating its own film industry. The unlikely movie was the now rarely discussed The Neptune Factor, a special effects-heavy undersea adventure starring Ben Gazzara, Ernest Borgnine, Walter Pidgeon and Yvette Mimieux. A true anomaly for the director, Petrie’s next two films were more in line with the rest of his resume: 1974’s Buster And Billie was a tough, tragically tinged, sexually provocative coming of age drama starring Jan-Michael Vincent and Joan Goodfellow; while 1976’s criminally underrated Lifeguard boasts one of the great Sam Elliott’s finest performances as a mid-thirties lifeguard looking to turn his life around.

A scene from Lifeguard.

Petrie rounded out the 1970s with the plodding, star laden (Laurence Olivier, Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Katharine Ross) 1978 Harold Robbins adaptation The Betsy. His television work during the 1970s, however, was incredibly strong, best typified by 1976’s extraordinary TV two-parter Sybil, starring the brilliant Sally Field as a young woman with multiple personality disorder; the historical dramas Eleanor And Franklin, Harry S. Truman: Plainly Speaking and Eleanor And Franklin: The White House Years; two strong westerns (The Gun And The Pulpit, starring Marjoe Gortner, and Trouble Comes To Town); and two chillers (A Howling In The Woods, Moon Of The Wolf).

Despite hitting his sixties, the 1980s would feature some of Daniel Petrie’s finest film work, kicking off with arguably his two best movies. 1980’s grittily mesmerising Resurrection stars the Oscar nominated Ellen Burstyn in a towering performance as a woman who briefly dies and comes back to life burdened with strange powers. Co-starring Sam Shepard in a stunning turn, the film is no horror-fantasy, but rather a thought provoking meditation on religion and cynicism in America’s heartland. This truly superb film deserves at least minor cult status, but remains largely abandoned, as does Petrie’s next film. 1981’s Fort Apache The Bronx was one of the best cop films of the decade, a tough, hard-hitting drama powered by blistering social commentary, unforgettable scenes of urban decay, and brilliant performances from Paul Newman, Ken Wahl, Pam Grier, Ed Asner, Danny Aiello and Rachel Ticotin. If there were ever films that absolutely demanded rediscovery, it’s these two.

A scene from Fort Apache The Bronx.

After the fun 1982 car racing family flick Six Pack (starring Kenny Rogers and Diane Lane), Petrie delivered his most personal film, returning to Nova Scotia, Canada for 1984’s The Bay Boy, a haunting, poetic but gutsy coming of age drama that also represented the director’s first significant screenwriting credit. Starring a terrific Kiefer Sutherland in his first major screen role (alongside Liv Ullmann and Peter Donat as his parents) as a teenager making some big life decisions after witnessing a brutal murder, the tough but tender The Bay Boy is burnished with nostalgia, but it’s also strikingly immediate and deeply moving. Petrie followed that small wonder with two more strong low key dramas in 1987’s Square Dance (starring Winona Ryder and Rob Lowe) and 1988’s Rocket Gibraltar (with a magisterial turn from Burt Lancaster as a dying family patriarch) before changing tack with the ill-advised 1988 sequel Cocoon: The Return. The 1980s also saw three more excellent telemovies from Petrie in 1984’s The Dollmaker (starring a wonderfully against-type Jane Fonda), 1985’s The Execution Of Raymond Graham (a powerful meditation on the death penalty starring Jeff Fahey), and 1989’s My Name Is Bill W. (starring James Woods and James Garner and detailing the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous).

A major wind-down would occur for Daniel Petrie in the 1990s, with his two feature films (a 1994 take on the classic children’s story Lassie, and a barely released adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, which the director also scripted) outshone by his television films, which included a 1999 adaptation of the famous play Inherit The Wind (which featured great toe-to-toe work from Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott) and 1995’s Kissinger And Nixon, with Ron Silver and Beau Bridges. Petrie’s final credit came in 2001 with the telemovie Wild Iris, which in some ways encapsulated what the director did best: it was richly characterised, strongly performed (by Gena Rowlands, Laura Linney, Fred Ward and Emile Hirsch), and dealt with difficult subject matter (alcoholism, suicide, depression, family fracture) with sensitivity, empathy and intelligence.

Daniel Petrie

Daniel Petrie (who was married for 57 years to Dorothea Grundy Petrie, an Emmy-winning film and television producer) passed away from cancer in 2004 at the age of 83, leaving behind an enormous, richly varied body of work – much of it cruelly and ridiculously underappreciated – as well as two talented filmmaking sons in Daniel Petrie Jr. (Toy Soldiers) and Donald Petrie (Mystic Pizza) and two industry daughters in studio executive June and actress Mary. “The wonderful thing about directing is that you’re playing all the parts – you’re the king, you’re the queen, you’re the jester,” the late, great Daniel Petrie once said. “It’s fun being able to do that.”

For much, much more on Daniel Petrie, check out his epic interview with The Television Academy Foundation. If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Katt Shea, Frank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.

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  1. Barry Pearl

    A personal friend of the family, I’m proud and honored to have known Dan Sr. Each member of this family is a gift to humanity.

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