Richard C. Sarafian, best known as the director of the existential drive-in classic Vanishing Point, has died at the age of 83. Sarafian entered the art of film as a student at NYU, where he took a screenwriting course as a lark while crashing and burning as a pre-med/pre-law student. After quitting college and enlisting in the military, Sarafian was sent to Kansas City as an Army reporter, where he met the then-unknown Robert Altman. The two soon became drinking buddies, and Altman cast Sarafian in a play he was directing. They eventually became family when Sarafian married Altman’s sister, Joan. “We eloped,” he later recalled, “and I wrote a script on our honeymoon to pay the hotel bill.”
In 1962, while still in Kansas City, Sarafian wrote and directed his first shoestring feature, Terror At Black Falls, which features John A. Alonzo—later to become a legendary cinematographer—in an acting role. (Almost 10 years later, Alonzo did the ravishing, trippy cinematography for Vanishing Point.) By the time Terror was completed, Sarafian was busy in Hollywood directing for television. His TV credits include episodes of Maverick, Surfside 6, 77 Sunset Strip, Batman, I Spy, and the famous “Living Doll” episode of The Twilight Zone.
In 1965, Sarafian was given the chance to make another feature, Andy, through Universal’s talent-nurturing “New Horizons” program. Sarafian shot the film on the streets of a wintry New York City on a budget of less than $300,000, and—while it won some acclaim when it was shown at Cannes—it was all but disowned by the studio. Sarfian returned to TV, but six years later made Vanishing Point, where, he later said, “the challenge [was] to physicalize speed.” It was a critical and commercial failure, but went on to become a cult classic hailed by directors like Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino. A remake starring Viggo Mortensen aired on Fox in 1997, while another big-screen version was attached for a while to director Richard Kelly. Of these, Sarafian once remarked, “As far as I'm concerned, why piss on a Rembrandt?”
Sarfian’s other directing credits include Man In The Wilderness (1971), The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), The Next Man (1976), Sunburn (1979), and Street Justice (1987). The final movie he directed, Solar Crisis (1990), was credited to the infamous “Alan Smithee.” The heavyset, booming-voiced Sarafian also had a side career as an actor, with memorable roles in Alan Rudolph’s Songwriter (1984), Barry Levinson’s Bugsy (1991), Sean Penn’s The Crossing Guard, the Wachowskis’ Bound (1996), Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (1998), and the Bob Dylan vehicle Masked And Anonymous (2003). He also appeared in several movies directed by his son Deran Serafian, including The Road Killers (1994), which was written by another of his sons, Tedi Sarafian.