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Michael Apted, filmmaker behind innovative ‘Seven Up!’ documentary series, dies at 79

Mr. Apted’s light touch and competence also kept him from being pigeonholed.
Mr. Apted’s light touch and competence also kept him from being pigeonholed.Jennifer Taylor

Michael Apted, the innovative filmmaker behind the “Up” documentary series that chronicled a group of British people for more than 50 years, and also made such varied feature films as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “The World Is Not Enough,” died Friday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 79.

Cort Kristensen, a producer at Mr. Apted’s film company, confirmed the death. The cause was undisclosed.

Mr. Apted’s training as a documentarian lent an unfussy naturalism to an eclectic Hollywood career, and for four decades the English-born director helmed 21 feature films in a variety of genres, from the Cold War thriller “Gorky Park” (1983), starring William Hurt, to the family blockbuster “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (2010), his highest-grossing hit.

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Many of his best-known films featured strong female leads, and he directed several actresses to Academy Award recognition. Sissy Spacek won an Oscar for her performance as country star Loretta Lynn in the 1980 biopic "Coal Miner's Daughter." Sigourney Weaver was nominated for playing real-life primatologist Dian Fossey in "Gorillas in the Mist" (1988), and Jodie Foster as a girl growing up in the North Carolina woods in "Nell" (1994).

"The only question that he will ever ask is, 'Is it real or is it not?' " Foster told Roger Ebert in 1994. "He wants the story to tell itself."

Mr. Apted himself never earned a nomination.

He was studying law at Cambridge, where he also made documentaries, when he applied to be one of several young researchers on a film from a new company called Granada Television, as part of the current affairs series "World in Action."

“Seven Up!,” conceived by program director Tim Hewat, examined the different socioeconomic backgrounds and presumed trajectories of 14 boys and girls from all over London. Its thesis was an old Jesuit saying: “Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man.”

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Mr. Apted selected several of the participants, including Tony Walker from the lower-class East End of London, who went on to become a cabdriver.

The film aired on British television in 1963 and was an unexpected phenomenon, a groundbreaking piece of cinema vérité and social anthropology. It was directed by a Canadian named Paul Almond, who “knew nothing about documentaries,” according to Mr. Apted, speaking to NPR in 2019. “So I had to, in a way, educate him.”

He called it a “cunningly” strategic move on his part, because when Granada decided to revisit those same children seven years later, Mr. Apted was asked to direct. Every seven years, from 1963 to 2019, he dropped back in on the kids as they became an upper-class politician, a humble librarian, a science teacher who moved to America, and the cocksure Walker — asking them in his droll, newsman’s voice about their marriages, jobs, and views of politics and religion.

In doing so, Mr. Apted created an unprecedented diary not just of his subjects’ lives, but of Britain itself, and even the world. The “Up” series, which Washington Post journalist Mary Jo Murphy deemed in 2020 “the greatest documentary ever made,” prefigured reality television and pop culture’s obsession with the ups and downs of real people, but did so with far more sophistication and integrity.

It was a little more complicated for the subjects themselves, some of whom dropped in and out of the series over the years and who frequently had to be cajoled by Mr. Apted to participate.

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“He wants to make good TV,” said one of the lifelong “Up” subjects, Nick Hitchon, the science teacher from rural Northern England, to NPR in 2019. “And anything that would get in the way of that is going to be sacrificed in a hurry. So it’s always been the case that if I said something really embarrassing, he would use it — because that’s the best TV, from his point of view. . . . I’m not saying that to be horrible about him. That’s just the way things are.”

After branching out into fictional storytelling on British television, Mr. Apted soon followed his boyhood dream to Hollywood. He found success as a journeyman filmmaker with a somewhat invisible hand. Many of the reviews for “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” his breakout hit in 1980, didn’t even mention his name.

But Mr. Apted’s light touch and competence also kept him from being pigeonholed. He made period dramas, such as the Agatha Christie mystery “Agatha” (1979) starring Vanessa Redgrave, as well as the romantic comedy “Continental Divide” (1981), starring John Belushi, and the crime thrillers “Thunderheart” (1992) and “Extreme Measures” (1996). One of his last highly regarded features was “Amazing Grace” (2006), starring Ioan Gruffudd as the English abolitionist William Wilberforce.

Mr. Apted was as surprised as anyone when he was approached to direct a James Bond film in 1999, but he eventually discovered why: “They were very worried that they could not attract women into the Bond franchise,” he told La-La Land Records in 2018.

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He had just married his second wife, screenwriter Dana Stevens, and the producers brought her in to rewrite some of the female characters in "The World Is Not Enough."

“I knew nothing about special effects, nothing about big action scenes, and I was terrified,” Mr. Apted said. “I don’t know why, but perhaps my best films have been with women in the lead.”

“The World Is Not Enough” came out on the heels of Mr. Apted’s latest “Up” chapter, “42 Up,” and in a New York Times review critic Janet Maslin wrote: “Doggone if Apted hasn’t been able to make James Bond grow up a little too.”

He spent the last decade working mostly in television, including episodes of “Ray Donovan” and “Masters of Sex.” His final feature was the 2017 global action thriller “Unlocked,” starring Noomi Rapace — yet another strong female lead.

Mr. Apted served as head of the Directors Guild of America for three terms between 2003 and 2009 and received honors for his dedication to the guild.

After “Seven Plus Seven,” the second “Up” film, in 1970, Mr. Apted told Granada that he didn’t want to be stuck doing documentaries forever. “I want to do drama as my life,” he remembered saying. “But I think I found a way of putting documentary and drama together.”

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Mr. Apted's documentary series followed his subjects from the time they were 7 years old.
Mr. Apted's documentary series followed his subjects from the time they were 7 years old.BritBox/Handout

Michael David Apted was born on Feb. 10, 1941 in Aylesbury, , England. His father was a fire insurance surveyor, and his mother was a homemaker. He had a brother and sister. Both parents were conscious of their lower-class status and stymied education, and they sent Michael to a London boarding school when he was 10.

Mr. Apted saw Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” when he was 15 and told The New York Times in 2019 that it was a road-to-Damascus moment, kindling in him a desire to make films with the “gravitas and seriousness of a book.”

He played rugby and acted while he was at Cambridge, alongside peers such as John Cleese and Stephen Frears, and he chose law as the practical backstop if filmmaking didn't work out.

His marriages to Jo Proctor and Stevens ended in divorce. He leaves his wife, Paige Simpson; a son from each of his first two marriages; and a daughter from another relationship. His son Paul, a Hollywood sound editor, died in 2014 of colon cancer.

The nine “Up” films became increasingly exhausting, and Mr. Apted began musing that each might be his last.

“I think it’s a question that I won’t have to answer,” he told NPR in 2019 after “63 Up,” “because the question is if I drop dead, which is not unlikely, actually, between now and the next seven years. So I’ve kept it open. It’ll be something that I gave to television. No one will ever take that away from me.”