The 20 oldest living film directors

Find out which filmmakers hold the current record for longevity.

David Parkinson

The original poster for the 1966 film Batman, directed by the world’s second oldest living filmmaker

The original poster for the 1966 film Batman, directed by the world’s second oldest living filmmaker

It’s unlikely that anyone will surpass Manoel de Oliveira’s record of being the world’s oldest active filmmaker. The Portuguese maestro was 105 when he completed his final short, The Old Man of Belem (2014), which also earned him the record for the longest directorial career, as he started back in 1931 with the silent city symphony, Douro, Faina Fluvial.

Yet, De Oliveira is not the longest lived film director. That distinction goes to George Abbott, who was 107 and seven months when he passed away on 31 January 1995. Primarily known as a playwright, Abbott began acting in films in 1918 and made his directorial bow with The Carnival Man (1929). However, he saved the best until last, when he teamed with Stanley Donen to adapt his hit Broadway musicals The Pajama Game (1957) and Damn Yankees (1958).

The estimable Donen just makes it on to our list of the 20 oldest living directors ahead of such notables as Fernando Birri, Peter Brook, D.A. Pennebaker, Claude Lanzmann and Károly Makk, who are all in their 91st year. The oldest female filmmaker, Gillian Lynne, turned 90 on 20 February, as did Andrzej Wajda on 6 March and Jerry Lewis on 16 March. With Roger Corman (5 April), Mel Brooks (28 June) and Norman Jewison (21 July) all set to join the 90 Club in 2016, there are still plenty of cinematic titans hoping to surpass De Oliveira’s longevity record.

Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this list. If there are older living directors out there, please let us know.

20. Gene Deitch (8 August 1924)

Hailing from UPA and Terrytoons, Deitch relocated to Prague to make Munro (1961), the first Oscar-winning animation produced outside the USA. He also made 13 Tom and Jerry cartoons for MGM. Among his 100+ credits are the Oscar-nominated Sidney’s Family Tree (1958), an abandoned mid-60s adaptation of The Hobbit and a 1973 take on Where the Wild Things Are.  

Stanley Donen (right) with Gene Kelly on the set of Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Stanley Donen (right) with Gene Kelly on the set of Singin' in the Rain (1952)

19. Stanley Donen (13 April 1924)

Initially known for co-directing On the Town (1949) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) with Gene Kelly, Donen scored solo musical hits with Royal Wedding (1951), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Funny Face (1957) before branching out with cross-generic gems like Charade (1963), Two for the Road (1967), Bedazzled (1968) and Movie Movie (1978).

18. Armand Gatti (24 January 1924)

War hero, journalist, poet and playwright, Gatti associated with the Left Bank group and collaborated regularly with Chris Marker. His debut, Enclosure (1961), was acclaimed at Cannes, while El otro Cristóbal (1963) was filmed in Cuba after Gatti was recommended to Fidel Castro by Che Guevara. He tacked the Irish question in The Writing on the Wall (1981).

17. Matti Kassila (12 January 1924)

A stalwart of Finnish cinema, Kassila has produced 30 features and numerous documentaries and shorts since his 1949 debut. Despite switching between noir (The Radio Commits Burglary, 1951), drama (The Harvest Month, 1956) and the road movie (The Heart of Glass, 1959), he’s best known for the Inspector Palmu quartet (1960-69), inspired by the novels of Mika Waltari.

16.  Arthur Hiller (22 November 1923)

Graduating from television and Disney, Hiller teamed profitably with Paddy Chayefsky on The Americanization of Emily (1964) and The Hospital (1971) and Neil Simon on The Out-of-Towners (1970) and Plaza Suite (1971). But his fortunes tapered off after Silver Streak (1976) and he will forever be remembered for Love Story (1970).

15. Alexandre Astruc (13 July 1923)

Although commended for the 1953 short, The Crimson Curtain, and the features Les Mauvaises Rencontres (1955) and Une vie (1958), Astruc’s reputation rests on ‘The Birth of a New Avant-Garde’, an article in the 30 March 1948 edition of L’Ecran français that propounded the ‘caméra-stylo’ technique that influenced the auteur shooting style of the French new wave.

Branded to Kill (1967), directed by Seijun Suzuki

Branded to Kill (1967), directed by Seijun Suzuki

14. Seijun Suzuki (24 May 1923)

Departing from the lurid studio style with Youth of the Beast (1963), Suzuki so upset the Nikkatsu hierarchy with the stylised yakuza masterpieces Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967) that he was banned for a decade. He returned triumphantly, however, with the ‘Taisho trilogy’ (1980-91) and proved typically unpredictable at 82 with Princess Raccoon (2005).

13. Mrinal Sen (14 May 1923)

Introduced to cinema by the Indian People’s Theatre Association, Sen approached diverse social issues from a Marxist perspective. The comedy Bhuvan Shome (1969) and the ‘Calcutta trilogy’ (1971-73) confirmed him as a key figure in Indian ‘parallel cinema’, and he won prizes at Berlin for In Search of Famine (1980) and Cannes for The Case Is Closed (1982).

12. Franco Zeffirelli (12 February 1923)

Grounded in neorealism by Luchino Visconti, Zeffirelli returned to cinema after excelling as a stage designer with the Shakespearean duo, The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and Romeo and Juliet (1968). He has since directed Mel Gibson’s Hamlet (1990), operas like Otello (1986), the autobiographical Tea with Mussolini (1999) and the fictionalised Callas Forever (2002).

Hamlet (1990), directed by Franco Zeffirelli

Hamlet (1990), directed by Franco Zeffirelli

11. Jonas Mekas (24 December 1922)

A Lithuanian survivor of wartime labour and displaced persons camps, Mekas emigrated to the USA with his brother Adolfas in 1949 and founded Film Culture and the Film-Makers’ Cooperative. Following the underground classic, The Brig (1963), he became known for diary films like Sleepless Nights Stories (2011) that captured reality and memory “without being poetic”.

10. Ebrahim Golestan (19 October 1922)

Resident in Sussex since 1975, Golestan began producing industrial shorts like The Wave, Coral and Rock and A Fire (both 1961), which was edited by poet Forough Farrokhzad. A satirical intent informed The Iranian Crown Jewels (1965), as well as his features, The Brick and the Mirror (1964) and The Secret of the Treasure of the Jinn Valley (1972).

9. Bert I. Gordon (24 September 1922)

First filming at nine, Gordon debuted with King Dinosaur (1955) and became AIP’s Mr BIG with such monster movies as The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Attack of the Puppet People and Earth vs the Spider (both 1958). Latterly, he based Village of the Giants (1965) and The Food of the Gods (1976) on the same H.G. Wells story.

8. Guy Hamilton (16 September 1922)

Carol Reed’s assistant on The Third Man (1949), Hamilton made his mark with An Inspector Calls (1954) and The Colditz Story (1955) and his name with four Bond movies from Goldfinger (1964). More espionage and action followed with Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Battle of Britain (1969) before he turned to Agatha Christie in the early 1980s.

Guy Hamilton (centre) in production on Live and Let Die (1973)

Guy Hamilton (centre) in production on Live and Let Die (1973)

7. Robert Day (11 September 1922)

Having risen from clapper boy to camera operator, Day initially specialised in comedies like The Green Man (1956), Two-way Stretch (1960) and The Rebel (1961). Following the 1958 Boris Karloff duo of Grip of the Strangler and Corridors of Blood, however, he decamped to Hollywood to make She (1965), three Tarzan movies and lots of television.

6. Carl Reiner (20 March 1922)

A TV legend with nine Emmys to his credit thanks to The Dick Van Dyke Show and his association with Sid Caesar, Reiner began directing with the semi-autobiographical Enter Laughing (1967). Alongside cult favourites like The Comic (1969), Where’s Poppa? (1970) and Oh, God! (1977), he also guided Steve Martin through four features from The Jerk (1979).

5. Lewis Gilbert (6 March 1920)

A child actor and wartime documentarist, Gilbert found a niche with combat pictures like Reach for the Sky (1956), Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) and Sink the Bismarck! (1960). Eminently versatile, he went on to direct three Bonds, but also had a way with stage transfers like Alfie (1966), Educating Rita (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1989).

Alfie (1966), directed by Lewis Gilbert

Alfie (1966), directed by Lewis Gilbert

4. Michael Anderson (30 January 1920)

Currently the oldest Oscar-nominated director, Anderson began modestly before The Dam Busters (1955) led to an invitation to make best picture winner, Around the World in Eighty Days (1956). He subsequently proved a sure hand with sci-fi (a 1956 version of 1984; Logan’s Run, 1976), military topics (Yangtse Incident, 1957; Conduct Unbecoming, 1975) and thrillers (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966).

3. Lester James Peries (5 April 1919)

The doyen of Sinhalese cinema, Peries began with experimental shorts and government infomationals before his debut feature, Rekava (1956), was acclaimed at Cannes. Noted for their quiet contemplation, his 20-plus pictures include the ‘Wickremasinghe trilogy’ – Gamperaliya (1964), Kaliyugaya (1982) and Yuganthaya (1985) – as well as Golu Hadawatha (1968), Nidhanaya (1970) and his sole English outing, The God King (1974).

Lester James Peries filming The God King (1974)

Lester James Peries filming The God King (1974)

2. Leslie H. Martinson (16 January 1915)

A journalist before becoming an MGM script clerk in 1936, Martinson began directing TV western shows before debuting with the Mickey Rooney sci-fi romp, The Atomic Kid (1954). He remained a small-screen stalwart, but enjoyed cult success with Hot Rod Girl (1956), PT 109 (1963), Batman (1966) and Fathom (1967) before his cinematic swan song, Mrs Pollifax: Spy (1971).

1.  Antony Mithradas (2 November 1913)

A pioneer of Malayalam and Tamil cinema, the world’s oldest film director only has seven pictures to his credit. He debuted with the Tamil drama Dayalan (1941) before attracting attention with the 1954 Prem Nazir duo, Baalyasakhi and Avakasi. In 1955, he directed the first Malayalam mythological, Harishchandra, before concluding his career with the Sinhalese hit, Duppathage Duka (1956), and legendary actor M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s farewell, Sivagami (1960).

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