Alan Parker, eclectic British director behind 'Midnight Express,' dies at 76

The two-time Oscar nominee effortlessly weaved between movie genres and visual styles in a directing career that spanned the mid-1970s to the early aughts.
Image: British film director Parker in Malta
British film director Sir Alan Parker, speaks with local media at a hotel in Valletta, Malta on June 4, 2016.Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters file

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By Daniel Arkin

Alan Parker, the versatile British film director whose genre-hopping body of work included the harrowing Turkish prison drama "Midnight Express" and the high-spirited rock comedy "The Commitments," died Friday, according to a family statement. He was 76.

The filmmaker died following a long illness, his family said.

Parker, a two-time Oscar nominee, weaved between movie genres and visual styles in a directing career that spanned from the mid-1970s to the early aughts. He tackled everything from baroque horror ("Angel Heart") and crime thrillers ("Midnight Express," "Mississippi Burning") to an earnest literary adaptation ("Angela's Ashes," based on the memoir by Irish-American writer Frank McCourt).

He seemed drawn to projects that revolved around music, including the original version of "Fame," the hallucinatory cult favorite "Pink Floyd — The Wall," the Dublin-set ensemble comedy "The Commitments," and the screen adaptation of the stage musical "Evita," starring Madonna as Eva Perón.

Parker, whose final film was the Kevin Spacey vehicle "The Life of David Gale," earned several industry accolades over the course of his career, including a pair of Academy Award nods for directing "Midnight Express" and "Mississippi Burning."

In all, Parker's films earned 19 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards, 10 Academy Awards and 10 Golden Globe awards, according to his family's statement. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2002.

Parker was born in Islington, London, and launched his career as an advertising copywriter. He eventually went to direct and write television commercials, joining a group of influential British filmmakers — including Ridley Scott and Adrian Lyne ("Fatal Attraction") — who pushed the envelope on small-screen advertising with movie-quality aesthetics.

He made his feature debut in 1976 with "Bugsy Malone," a cheeky parody of gangster dramas featuring musical numbers and child actors (including Jodie Foster and Scott Baio) playing adult roles.

Parker's work occasionally courted controversy.

"Midnight Express," a brutal drama about the horrors of a Turkish prison, was harshly criticized for painting Turkish characters as grotesquely villainous. "Angel Heart," a nightmarish tale of the occult starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro, nearly ended up with a dreaded X rating in the U.S.

Parker showed a gentler side of his cinematic personality with "The Commitments," a sweet-natured comedy that follows the travails of a blue-collar soul band in Ireland. The movie inspired a small-scale cult following on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Alan was stubborn, feisty and brilliant," said Parker's attorney, Alan S. Wertheimer. "He’s in the pantheon of world-class directors, and I’m proud to to have been his lawyer. Alan’s movies will live on and continue to inspire all who see them. It’s a sad day for cinephiles."

He is survived by his wife Lisa Moran-Parker; his children Lucy, Alexander, Jake, Nathan and Henry; and seven grandchildren.

Diana Dasrath contributed.