04/25/2011 at 01:00 AM EDT
He's been called the quintessential New York director, but Sidney Lumet, who died of lymphoma at age 86 on April 9, was proudest of how he worked with actors. "He brought out the best in me and everyone around him," says Treat Williams, who starred in 1981's Prince of the City. "He was the general you would go into battle for." His directing career spanned more than 50 years and 40 films, tough, street-smart gems like 1957's 12 Angry Men, 1975's Dog Day Afternoon, 1976's Network and 1982's The Verdict. He did it with a combination of swagger and humility characteristic of the city he observed so well. "Growing up Jewish-I lived in every borough but Staten Island-if I walked a few blocks one way or another into another neighborhood, I got beat up," he told New York in 2007. "So you learn to pay attention." When it comes to his indelible work, film lovers would be wise to follow suit.