Michael Apted, versatile director known for 'Up' series, dies at 79

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Michael Apted, versatile director known for 'Up' series, dies at 79
The director Michael Apted at his office in West Los Angeles, Dec. 18, 2012. Apted, who made his most lasting mark with the “Up” documentary series, which followed the lives of a group of Britons in seven-year intervals for more than a half century, died in Los Angeles on Jan. 7, 2021. He was 79. Robert Yager/The New York Times.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Michael Apted, a versatile director whose films were as varied as the James Bond picture “The World Is Not Enough” and the biographical dramas “Gorillas in the Mist” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and who made his most lasting mark with the “Up” documentary series, which followed the lives of a group of British people in seven-year intervals for more than a half century, died on Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 79.

His agent in the United States, Roy Ashton, confirmed the death but did not specify a cause.

Apted, who was British, was a researcher at Granada Television in England when he helped pick the 14 children, all of them 7, who became the subjects of “Seven Up!,” the initial documentary in the “Up” series, which was directed by Paul Almond and shown on British television in 1964.

The film was intended as a one-off, but Apted picked up the ball seven years (more or less) later, acting as director of “7 Plus Seven,” broadcast in England in late 1970, in which he interviewed the same children, now at a more developed stage of life.

Then came “21 Up” in 1977, “28 Up” in 1984 and so on, with new installments arriving every seven years, all directed by Apted. “63 Up” was released in 2019.

Collectively, the films became a serial portrait of a group of ordinary people advancing through life, from childhood through adulthood, charting their different paths and changing perspectives. The New York Times in 2019 called it “the most profound documentary series in the history of cinema.”

The intent of the original program in 1964 was to look at different segments of Britain’s class system. Thanks to Apted’s persistence, “Up” became something more.

“I realized for the first time, after 20 years on the project, that I really hadn’t made a political film at all,” he wrote in 2000. “What I had seen as a significant statement about the English class system was in fact a humanistic document about the real issues of life.”

Manohla Dargis, summarizing “63 Up” in The Times, wrote, “There’s great pleasure in revisiting this series, seeing who turned out just fine and sometimes better than you might have expected or hoped.”

While revisiting “Up” periodically across six decades, Apted worked in television and commercial film.

“Agatha” (1979), a fictional drama about the novelist Agatha Christie, starred Vanessa Redgrave in the title role. Apted had particular success in the 1980s, beginning in 1980 with “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” about the country singer Loretta Lynn, played by Sissy Spacek, who won the best-actress Oscar.

The next year he directed the John Belushi-Blair Brown comedy “Continental Divide”; two years later came the crime drama “Gorky Park,” based on the Martin Cruz Smith novel, starring William Hurt. In 1988 there was “Gorillas in the Mist,” the story of the naturalist Dian Fossey; its five Oscar nominations included one for Sigourney Weaver, who played Fossey.

Apted’s 1990s films included “Thunderheart” (1992), a thriller with Val Kilmer, and the drama “Nell" (1994), a vehicle for Jodie Foster. Then came his entry in the James Bond franchise — “The World Is Not Enough” (1999), with Pierce Brosnan as agent 007.

In a 2010 interview with The Times, Apted reflected on his one regret about the “Up” series — that his initial choice of children was unbalanced, 10 boys but only 4 girls — and how his choices of mainstream films might have been a way to compensate for that.

“The biggest social revolution in my life, growing up in England, has been the change in the role of women in society,” he said. “We didn’t have civil rights and Vietnam in England, but I think that particular social revolution is the biggest thing, and I missed it by not having enough women. And because I didn’t have enough women, I didn’t have enough choice of what options were in front of women who were building careers and having families and all this sort of stuff.”

He continued: “Looking at everything from ‘Agatha’ through ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ from ‘Nell’ and “Continental Divide,’ they’re all to do with women’s role in society and what women have to do to have a role in society, or the choices women have to make to stay in society or have a voice in society, in both straightforward and eccentric ways. That’s always interested me. And that, I think, stems from the feeling that I slightly missed out.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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