Lewis Gilbert, the prolific British director whose career spanned across eight decades, has died aged 97. He is a man whose name should be better known as he directed some true classics, but perhaps because his successes were so eclectic and spread across so many years, many people don’t realise he was the man behind all of them.
Born in 1920 in London to parents who were music hall performers, he started out as a child actor on stage and screen. However as a young man he decided he preferred life behind the camera and was already assisting Hitchcock on Jamaica Inn by 1939. During the Second World War he gained experience making documentary shorts for both the Royal Air Force’s film unit and the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army Air Forces.
After the war he began to segue from documentary to fiction, creating some of the classic British WWII movies of the post-war period, including The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1954), Reach for the Sky (1956), Carve Her Name with Pride (1958) and Sink the Bismarck! (1960). During the 60s he started having iconic success away from war films, most notably 1966’s Alfie with Michael Caine, a movie that perhaps defined the ‘swinging 60s’ more than any other, and also catapulted Caine to superstardom. It was for that movie that Gilbert received his only Best Director Oscar nomination.
The next year he helmed You Only Live Twice, the first of three James Bond movies he directed. In the 70s he took the reins of both The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1977). Some have suggested the wit he brought to his Bond movies helped cement the franchise and keep it alive at points where it was threatening to fade from relevance.
Once again showing he could have immense success in unexpected genres, he followed his final 007 film with the multi-Oscar nominated Educating Rita (1986), which reunited him with Michael Caine and also had a profound effect on Julie Walters career. In 1986 he had another enormous critical and commercial success with Shirley Valentine. Like Educating Rita it was based on a Willy Russell script, but found filmic life through GIlbert’s assured directorial hand.
His final three films showed that even as he aged and slowed down, there was no genre he couldn’t tackle. 1991’s Stepping Out saw him team with Liza Minnelli for a musical-comedy. 1995’s Haunted was a supernaural thriller starring Aidan Quinn and Kate Beckinsale, while 2002’s Before You Go was a dramedy that reteamed him with Julie Walters.
Gilbert was awarded a CBE in 1997 and received the prestigious Fellowship of the British Film Institute in 2001.
Following his passing, Bond producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli released a statement saying, “It is with great sadness that we learn of the passing of our dear friend Lewis Gilbert. Lewis was a true gentleman. He made an enormous contribution to the British film industry as well as the Bond films, directing ‘You Only Live Twice,’ ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ and ‘Moonraker.’ His films are not only loved by us but are considered classics within the series. He will be sorely missed.”
Lewis’ son, John, told the BBC that his father “died peacefully in his sleep”. He added, “He was a wonderful man with a great sense of humour. He was hard-working and we worked on many films together.”
Gilbert died on February 23rd at his home in Monaco. He had been dealing with the effect of dementia for several years.