Lewis Gilbert, 1920–2018
The versatile director who helmed Bond and Alfie
Lewis Gilbert was a proud maker of what he called “entertainment films.” Versatile and unburdened by artistic pretensions, the British director helmed hits including 1966’s Alfie, about a swaggering Cockney lothario played by Michael Caine, and the acclaimed 1956 World War II film Reach for the Sky. But he was most widely known for his work on the James Bond series, directing Sean Connery in 1967’s You Only Live Twice and Roger Moore in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker (1979). “[People] aren’t interested in any of my films until I say ‘James Bond,’” Gilbert said in 2010. “And the minute I say ‘James Bond,’ they practically genuflect.”
“Born in London into a vaudeville family, Gilbert began touring in an act, the Four Kemptons, with his parents when he was 4,” said The Guardian (U.K.). After acting in several low budget films as a child, Gilbert decided in his late teens to become a director. “He got his start behind the camera with the Royal Air Force during World War II when he made several documentary shorts,” said The New York Times. Gilbert put that experience “to good use” in the 1950s and ’60s, directing action spectaculars such as Carve Her Name With Pride and Sink the Bismarck! He pitched Alfie to Paramount studio bosses after seeing the original stage version in the West End; they agreed, he said, only because “it was going to be made for $500,000—the sort of money executives spend on cigar bills.” The film received five Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, and propelled Caine to stardom.
Gilbert initially rejected an offer to direct You Only Live Twice, 007’s fifth outing, said The Times (U.K.). “I would be like Elizabeth Taylor’s fifth husband,” he told producers. “I would know what to do, but I wouldn’t know how to make it any different.” He eventually signed up, and created “one of the most stylishly over-the-top” installments of the franchise. After “several disappointments” in the 1970s, Gilbert enjoyed further success with 1983’s Educating Rita, about an alcoholic professor (Michael Caine) who mentors a young housewife (Julie Walters), and 1989’s Shirley Valentine. Having spent much of his life on film sets, Gilbert told Variety in 2002 that his dream was to work forever. “I just hope that upstairs,” he said, glancing at the sky, “there’s a film company that’s looking for a young director.”