Jonathan Demme, the Baldwin-born director known for his Oscar-winning thriller “The Silence of the Lambs,” the landmark gay drama “Philadelphia” and Talking Heads’ acclaimed concert film “Stop Making Sense,” has died from complications of esophageal cancer. He was 73.
Demme’s publicist, Annalee Paulo, said Demme died Wednesday morning in his New York apartment, surrounded by his wife, Joanne Howard, and three children, Ramona, Brooklyn and Jos.
Demme tackled a wide range of genres over his career, never sticking with one for too long. Like many filmmakers of his generation, he started by making exploitation flicks for the producer Roger Corman with such titles as “Caged Heat” and “Crazy Mama.” His breakout film, though, was the wry comedy-drama “Melvin and Howard” (1980), inspired by the real-life story of a gas-station attendant (Paul Le Mat) who claimed to be listed in the will of Howard Hughes (Jason Robards).
During the 1980s, Demme zigzagged from the World War II romance “Swing Shift,” starring Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, to the hit comedies “Something Wild” and “Married to the Mob.” He also became an art-house favorite thanks to “Swimming to Cambodia,” which introduced the monologuist Spalding Gray to a wider audience. In 1984, Demme’s critically acclaimed “Stop Making Sense” captured Talking Heads in concert and immortalized singer David Byrne as the guy with the big suit. It’s still often cited as one of the best concert films of all time, alongside Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz.”
Unexpectedly, it would be a horror-thriller that would become Demme’s best-known film. “The Silence of the Lambs,” based on Thomas Harris’ novel about an FBI trainee who recruits a notorious serial killer to help hunt down another, was released in 1991 to widespread acclaim. “The Silence of the Lambs” became one of the rare horror films to win the Academy Award for best picture, and also won Oscars for best actress (Jodie Foster), actor (Anthony Hopkins), adapted screenplay and director. “The Silence of the Lambs” was entered into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2011.
Demme’s follow-up in 1993, “Philadelphia,” starred Tom Hanks in what was then a risky role: a gay attorney dying of AIDS. Although the film drew some criticism for avoiding scenes of intimacy between Hanks and Antonio Banderas as his lover, “Philadelphia” was also recognized as one of the first Hollywood films to directly address the impact of homophobia and AIDS on the gay community. Hanks won an Oscar for his performance, while Bruce Springsteen also won for his original song “Streets of Philadelphia.”
His most recent film was 2015’s “Ricki and the Flash,” starring Meryl Streep as an aging rocker trying to reconnect with her estranged daughter.
One of Demme’s last projects was filming Wednesday night’s episode of “Shots Fired,” the Fox television drama that addresses themes of racially-charged gun violence.
“It keeps you on your toes, and from getting bored with the medium,” Demme said of his genre-hopping career in a 1987 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I want to make films that excite me a lot, and hopefully others also will be excited.”
Robert Jonathan Demme was born Feb. 22, 1944, in Baldwin to Robert Eugene Demme, a publicist, and the former Dorothy Rogers. He lived in Baldwin, Rockville Centre and Lynbrook, until his family moved to Florida in 1959.
In a 1998 Newsday interview, the director described his South Shore upbringing as one of bird-watching in the Woodmere Woods and movie-watching at theaters as far from home as Hempstead and Jamaica. “It’s funny to think back to that 10-year-old Long Island kid traveling to Jamaica and going into a highly urban theater to watch triple horror bills,” he said.
Demme graduated from Southwest Miami High School and then the University of Florida in Gainesville, although his hopes of becoming a veterinarian were dashed when he failed chemistry. A stint writing movie reviews for a local paper led to a meeting with the producer Joseph E. Levine, which in turn led to Demme’s first job in the film industry as a publicist.
“Some people are lucky,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “and some people are really lucky.”
Demme was the uncle of film director Ted Demme, best known for the Johnny Depp crime drama “Blow,” who died in 2002.