Jonathan Demme’s films, including “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia,” won Oscars, earned worldwide acclaim, and influenced countless filmmakers. But his efforts on the small screen were anything but small in comparison. Over the course of nearly 40 years in TV, Demme directed, wrote, and produced an impressive array of genres and worked with artists like Laura Dern, Peter Falk, Elliot Gould, Patrick Wilson, Aisha Hinds, and Helen Hunt.
Demme died Wednesday morning in New York at the age of 73. The cause was esophageal cancer and complications from heart disease, according to a source close to the family. He was originally treated for the disease in 2010, but suffered from a recurrence in 2015, and his condition deteriorated in recent weeks.
His last credited project is “Shots Fired,” the Fox limited series for which he directed one episode — coincidentally scheduled to air tonight. Episode 6, “The Fire This Time,” will premiere Wednesday night at 8 p.m. on Fox, and an “In Memoriam” card will precede the episode. Creators Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood issued the following statement on Demme’s death:
“We mourn the passing of Jonathan Demme. He was a tremendous artist who shared our belief that art can change the world. He was a gift, and he made every one around him better. He taught us to care a little bit more, believe a little bit more and listen a little bit more. We will miss him.”
Demme top-lined an impressive list of directors on “Shots Fired,” including Anthony Hemingway and Kasi Lemmons; the latter of whom worked with Demme in “The Silence of the Lambs.” She played the role of Ardelia Mapp, one of Clarice Starling’s fellow officers.
Below, IndieWire remembers Demme’s best work in television as well as a few key influences credited to the daring auteur. Please list your favorites in the comments section.
Demme directed the sixth (“Sandy”) and seventh (“Lonely Ghosts”) episodes of the HBO comedy’s debut season. Mike White’s series lasted only two seasons before HBO cancelled it, but Laura Dern and Luke Wilson’s series has already achieved a cult status, with fans already demanding a revival. Dern won a Golden Globe for her performance, and the series earned multiple nominations at the Globes and Emmys. Watch White talk about the sixth episode, featuring guest star Robin Wright, above.
“The Killing” (2013-2014)
Demme didn’t board this murder mystery until Season 3, its final season at AMC and at least one season past its creative peak. But the episode he directed (“Reckoning,” Episode 9) featured the series’ moody, rain-soaked world as well as tense, exciting chase scenes, all captured with Demme’s eye for action (lest we forget the tension and thrills in his “Manchurian Candidate” remake, in addition to “The Silence of the Lambs”). Demme later returned to direct when the show was picked up at Netflix for one final season, helming Episode 6, “Eden.”
”Documentary Now!” Spoof Tribute (2016)
Although Demme didn’t actually lend his directing skills to IFC’s parody series, “Documentary Now!” did pay tribute to his 1984 Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense,” touted as one of the greatest concert films of all time. Lead singer David Byrne’s big white suit, the on-stage minimalism, the driving setlist and special guest performers had a cumulative effect of creating an eclectic yet energetic narrative. The loving homage to “Stop Making Sense,” titled “Final Transmission,” was also a full-fledged concert film for the fictional band Test Pattern featuring costuming reminiscent of Byrne’s white suit, progressive set changes and original new wave music performed by Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and guest star Maya Rudolph. Armisen, who wrote all the songs and performed the lead vocals, said, “It’s in my bones. I’ve seen [the film] millions times that I know what it is.” Check out how ‘Final Transmission” measures up to “Stop Making Sense” in the video above.
“The X-Files” (1993-present)
One of television’s most iconic shows, and an early example of how TV has incorporated some of film’s very best aspects, owes an awful lot to Demme. “The X-Files” creator Chris Carter has always been very upfront about the fact that “The Silence of the Lambs” was a massive influence on the series, especially its earliest days.
And that influence goes beyond the semi-regular investigations of weird serial killers — watch the first appearance of Scully (Gillian Anderson) in the pilot episode, and you’ll find it impossible to ignore how much her stroll through the FBI bullpen owes to Demme’s verite style. It’s impossible to imagine “The X-Files” happening without “Silence” coming first: As Carter told Smithsonian Magazine, “It’s not a mistake that Dana Scully has red hair like Clarice Starling.”
“Saturday Night Live” (1980)
A year before MTV opened its TV doors, Demme brought a music video to “Saturday Night Live.” The director would go on to make documentaries about legendary acts and make more in-depth portraits of musicians, but this was Demme’s first indication that something like this could exist for music’s sake in a venue other than a theater. This “Gidgette Goes to Hell” segment for a 1980 episode of “SNL” showed off not only Demme’s curatorial instincts (the California punk band Suburban Lawns probably didn’t have the same shot at the show’s official musical guest slot), but it demonstrated how the show might be able to work unexpected pairings of subject and soundtrack into the show’s DNA. It’s kinetic, it’s wild — like most of Demme’s most memorable work, it’s ahead of its time.