To say that only William Friedkin could have remade 12 Angry Men would be patently untrue. Plenty of people could have remade Sidney Lumet's 1957 one-room drama. Paul Verhoeven could have remade it as a hyper-violent anti-fascist tale. James Cameron could have envisioned it as an underwater tribunal. Joel Schumacher could have done it with a black-light aesthetic and exaggerated codpieces. The truly accurate statement is that only William Friedkin could have gotten away with not only remaking 12 Angry Men in 1997, but as a TV movie for Showtime, starring two screen legends in the twilight of their careers, opposite an about-to-break-through James Gandolfini, all as a commentary on the O.J. Simpson verdict.
Friedkin, who died on August 7, 2023 in Los Angeles at the age of 87, was the Oscar-winning director of The French Connection, and of films like The Night They Raided Minsky's and To Live and Die in L.A.. But he's almost certainly best known for The Exorcist. Directors can have decades-long careers, make dozens of acclaimed films, win numerous awards, and they might not ever make a movie with the kind of cultural reach and staying power of The Exorcist. The film lives on, and so will Friedkin through its legacy. Attaining that degree of success so early in his career meant Friedkin could go on to make controversial pictures like Cruising, a film whose legacy has continued to evolve through the ensuing decades. He endured flops like Jade, directed the likes of Shaquille O'Neal in Blue Chips, and helmed a pair of Tracy Letts adaptations including Bug, which is quietly one of his five best films. It also gave him the kind of standing to, 30 years into his career, remake a revered movie like 12 Angry Men.
Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men is considered one of the great films of the 20th century. A black-and-white adaptation of Reginald Rose's teleplay, the film takes place in a single room and follows the deliberations of a jury as they try to decide the fate of a young man from the slums who allegedly stabbed his father. Initially, only one juror (Henry Fonda as Juror 8) is unconvinced of the boy's guilt, but over the course of one tense, sweaty, illuminating day, he's able to win everybody over to his side. As a production, it's not that much of an undertaking: a single room, a big table, 12 chairs. The fireworks come from the writing and the performances. What makes the film such a daunting prospect for a remake is its reputation, along with that of Henry Fonda, whose performance defined the notions of American decency and dedication to innocent-until-proven-guilty jurisprudence on film.
Friedkin was inspired by the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial, which is one of those things that sounds ludicrous in hindsight but made perfect sense back then. Friedkin was especially fascinated with the negative reaction that the Simpson jury got for returning a not guilty verdict. He wanted to remake 12 Angry Men as a testament to the notion that finding a "clearly" guilty man not guilty is sometimes the right thing to do. "'See, I believe the boy in the film is guilty, based on the facts you know,'' Friedkin told the New York Times in 1997. ''But under the rules of evidence it would be hard to convict him, and that's what these guys have to deal with. I think O. J. Simpson is guilty as hell, but I couldn't have convicted him based on the evidence presented and the rules of evidence.''
Friedkin's version wouldn’t have worked without an actor like Jack Lemmon in the lead role. At that point in his career, the two-time Academy Award winner had entered the pantheon of the greatest living American actors and elder statesmen of Hollywood. His unassuming demeanor and somewhat sloped posture enhanced his status as the jury's underdog — a lone voice against 11, arguing not even for innocence but reasonable doubt.
The casting is why you'd make another 12 Angry Men in the first place — to create a showcase for a dozen talented actors. Friedkin cast experienced character actors like Osse Davis, Edward James Olmos, and Courtney B. Vance, as well as actors who were just coming off of successful prestige projects like Mykelti Williamson (Forrest Gump) and Armin Meuller-Stahl (Shine). A longtime screen veteran like Hume Cronyn shared the screen with James Gandolfini, who was still a couple years away from nabbing the role of his life in Tony Soprano. Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A star William Petersen came on board as a sort of post-yuppie, with TV veteran Tony Danza as a jamoke who just wants to get the verdict finalized so he can make it to the Yankee game.
Expedience is on the mind of quite a few of the jurors in both the original and the remake. The fact that it's a hot summer day and everyone has something else they'd rather be doing is baked into the story, but Friedkin's version really lays into it. The whole architecture of the room looks designed to trap heat, and the dingy, cracked-open windows on a summer day in New York look like they'd do more harm than good. Every cast member is dabbing at sweat on their brow or the back of their neck. The camera moves in close and traps the actors in frame. Friedkin’s aware that the film's narrative is weighted towards Juror 8 (the Lemmon character), so these sweltering scenes and the claustrophobic set seem designed, at least initially, to generate some kind of sympathy for the other jurors. The viewer wants out of this room almost as much as they do.
For the film's final juror, played in Lumet's version by Lee J. Cobb, Friedkin cast screen legend George C. Scott. An Oscar winner for Patton, who was cranky enough about Hollywood's incessant politicking that he refused the award, Scott had reached his elder statesman period as Lemmon had, just in a gruffer register. Scott's juror is the toughest nut to crack, the one who most stubbornly holds on to his certainty of the young man's guilt, mostly because of his generational hatred and feelings towards his own estranged son. Scott, with his domineering visage and gravelly voice, takes up much more space than one man should. He bullies the jury and confronts Lemmon. Friedkin's camera often circles the jury table, taking in the various jurors, checking in on where their sympathies lie, but Scott seems to always be somewhere in the shot.
Seeing Lemmon and Scott square off is a thrill, but only a director with the gravitas of William Friedkin could have put this together and given these scenes the tactile, sweaty, unbearable tension they deserve. Lemmon's performance was so good that it caused Ving Rhames to bring that year's Golden Globes ceremony to a screeching halt as he tried to hand his award for playing Don King in HBO's Only in America to Lemmon. The film itself drew admiring reviews. Variety described Friedkin's directing as intelligent and resourceful. The Los Angeles Times called the remake "pulsating" and praised as the cast as "uniformly outstanding." The film was nominated for six Emmy Awards and won two, including Outstanding Supporting Actor for George C. Scott, the last major award he'd win before his death in 1999.
William Friedkin's legacy was already secure. He made Reagan MacNeil's head turn all the way around and scared the living hell out of an entire generation of moviegoers. But with 12 Angry Men, he took on one of the great American stories, and he succeeded. That this success unfolded on Showtime shouldn't be overlooked either. In 1997, Showtime existed deep in the shadow of HBO, especially when it came to making TV movies. HBO was on a streak at the time, winning the TV Movie Emmy category nine out of 10 years. In that same span, Showtime was only nominated four times. HBO was the prestige outlet, while Showtime was the afterthought. To even compete with HBO during this era was a win for Showtime; to do so armed with the prestige of Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott, standing up to the formidable reputation of Lumet's original film and holding his own, Friedkin accomplished the improbable.
William Friedkin's 12 Angry Men is streaming on the Roku Channel and Tubi.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.