Michael Apted, director of ‘Up’ documentary series, dies

Michael Apted, the acclaimed British director of the “Up” documentary series and films as diverse as the Loretta Lynn biopic “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and the James Bond film “The World Is Not Enough,” has died. He was 79.

A representative for the Directors Guild of America said his family informed the organization that he passed Thursday night. No cause was given.

An incredibly prolific director, Apted’s legacy is perhaps most defined by the nine “Up” films, which followed the lives of 14 economically diverse British children from age 7 to 63. The project started in 1964 with “Seven Up!” the brainchild of the late Canadian filmmaker Paul Almond. Apted served as a researcher on the first film and took over as director seven years later, continuing to check in with the subjects every seven years.

“He turned it into a nice film, but I turned it into a political document,” Apted said in a DGA Quarterly interview in 2018. “That if you were born into a certain environment, you had no chance at all of achieving any ambition. It was going to be controversial, crude, no holds barred, and was going to tell it as it was. It had a huge effect on the country, not just on television, because it showed graphically how awful things were.”

Apted credited the late film critic Roger Ebert for bringing the series to the attention of American audiences. The ambitious project earned him an Institutional Peabody Award in 2012 and also had the honor of being satirized by “The Simpsons” in a 2007 episode. The last film, “63 Up,” came out in 2019.

“The series was an attempt to do a long view of English society,” Apted told Slant Magazine in 2019. “The class system needed a kick up the backside.”

Apted was born in Aylesbury to a middle class family in 1941. Scholarships allowed him to study at Cambridge, where he counted John Cleese among his friends. He started in media with an apprenticeship at Granada Television, working on productions such as “Coronation Street.”

He made his feature debut in 1972 on “The Triple Echo” with Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson. In 1980, he came to the U.S. to direct “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” a commercial and critical success that earned Sissy Spacek a best actress Oscar. Apted moved to California after that and worked steadily in film and television for the next 40 years.

Although Apted himself was never nominated for an Oscar, his films would garner two more acting nominations: Sigourney Weaver for her portrayal of Dian Fossey in “Gorillas in the Mist” and Jodie Foster for “Nell.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Friday tweeted, “He will be missed.” Apted was involved in the industry, having served as an academy governor and as president of the directors guild from 2003 to 2009.

He directed a wide variety of projects and stars, including John Belushi in “Continental Divide,” William Hurt in “Gorky Park,” Hugh Grant and Gene Hackman in “Extreme Measures” and Jennifer Lopez in “Enough.” In 1999, he directed the third Pierce Brosnan James Bond film, “The World Is Not Enough.” More recently, he worked on the Showtime series “Masters of Sex.”

Although he transcended genres, Apted’s work, no matter how fantastical, was rooted in a sense of realism.

“I was enormously influenced by English realism,” Apted said in 2018. “(It) was about not just finding the place but also to have the voice of the people living there. … If I could do it outside a studio, in the real place, I would do it.”

Taylor Hackford, who succeeded Apted at the directors guild, said in a statement that he was “the definition of ‘mensch’ — like the wonderful director he was, you could always count on him to deliver a clear and well thought out point-of-view, usually leavened with a dollop of dry wit.”

Steven Soderbergh, who also served alongside Apted at the directors guild, added that he “spent countless hours literally two feet from Michael and loved every minute of it. Apart from his own remarkable body of work, what he gave to the DGA can’t be measured; he put his entire BEING into the Guild and inspired us all to follow his example.”

Apted wasn’t looking to slow down either. He told Slant Magazine that he would be keen to do a “70 Up.”

“I’d like to go on for as long as I am above ground,” he said. “I’d like it to continue.”

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