Director John Frankenheimer's the Manchurian Candidate Plays to a Full House After 26 Years

updated 05/16/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Forget nostalgia. Director John Frankenheimer knows the smash re-release of his 1962 political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, marks nothing less than his career rebirth. Frankenheimer was 32 when he filmed Candidate, starring Laurence Harvey as a sniper brainwashed by Communist agents to assassinate a presidential candidate and Frank Sinatra as the army buddy who tries to stop him. He couldn't know then that his film, based on Richard Condon's 1959 novel, would prove prophetic.

Just one year later, JFK was assassinated, and Frankenheimer found himself at the center of a fierce controversy. "The gist of the questions I got was, Did I feel responsible for the President being killed? My answer was, Of course not. It had nothing to do with movies." Others felt differently. Sinatra, who co-owned release rights to the film, was devastated. (He had reportedly prevailed on his friend Jack Kennedy to intercede with United Artists chairman Arthur Krim to get the picture made. JFK told Krim that the story would make "a good thriller.") Except for a few TV airings, the film sat on the shelf for a quarter of a century.

Frankenheimer continued to work steadily, but his career since then has been erratic. His personal life, complicated by heavy drinking and, later, by the assassination of his friend Robert Kennedy, left him "disjointed, unfocused. I sort of had a nervous breakdown."

Now, at 58, Frankenheimer feels vindicated as Candidate is being hailed as "a dark masterpiece," a film ahead of its time. "The accolades usually come when you're dead or too old to get a job," he says. He has Sinatra to thank for once again being in demand. At Sinatra's insistence, the film was reissued to promote its upcoming release on video. The plan worked better than he thought. Candidate has been so profitable in theaters that the home video version has been put on hold. Frankenheimer is currently on location in Calgary, Alta., where he is directing Don (Miami Vice) Johnson in an action film called Dead-Bang. Says the New York-born director: "Success seems to be coming back, better than ever."

Still, some of the memories Candidate evokes cause him pain. In an eerie parallel to the film, Frankenheimer traces his troubles back to another political assassination—that of Robert Kennedy in 1968. The director was working with Bobby on his TV ad campaigns, and the two had become chums. On the day of the 1968 California primary, Bobby was relaxing at the director's home. Then Frankenheimer drove Kennedy to the Ambassador Hotel to greet his supporters and to celebrate the primary victory that practically guaranteed him the Democratic nomination. "I was supposed to be the guy standing next to Bobby on the podium," he says. Instead, Frankenheimer begged off to watch the speech on a TV monitor in the archway. As he watched, Sirhan Sirhan, Kennedy's assassin, brushed by him. "It was like Manchurian Candidate," says Frankenheimer. "I felt this shaking inside of me." Just before Kennedy was fatally shot by Sirhan, Frankenheimer went out to his car to wait for the candidate and heard the news of the tragedy on the car radio.

Bobby's death haunted him. He lost interest in his career. "I felt burned out," says Frankenheimer. He drank. That problem, he says, dates back to his youth. The son of a Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother, John says, "Alcoholism was a disease I inherited from both sides of my family."

Earlier, he had found his career a welcome distraction. A graduate of Williams College, John was trained in filmmaking by the Air Force during the Korean War. Later, he supervised dozens of live TV broadcasts under the Playhouse 90 banner. After an early marriage that lasted two months, Frankenheimer married Carolyn Miller in 1954. (They have two daughters, Elise, 32, a housewife, and Christie, 30, a film location manager.) After eight years, he again divorced, marrying actress Evans (All Fall Down) Evans in 1963. It was Evans, he says, who helped him through the bad years. "Adversity can tear people apart," says Evans. "In our case it brought us closer." In 1981 he stopped drinking "cold turkey."

Staying sober, says Frankenheimer, has improved "my relationship with both my daughters." It has also made him excited about directing again. Frankenheimer likens the hurrahs for what he feared would be a forgotten film to "winning the World Series. It's nice to know you did that once. But it's nicer to still be playing."

—By Fred Bernstein, with Richard Natale in Los Angeles

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