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Acclaimed director Jules Dassin dies at 96

American director Jules Dassin, whose Greek wife Melina Mercouri starred in his hit movie “Never on Sunday” and six more of his films, died late Monday at an Athens hospital, officials said. He was 96.
/ Source: The Associated Press

American director Jules Dassin, whose Greek wife Melina Mercouri starred in his hit movie “Never on Sunday” and six more of his films, died late Monday at an Athens hospital, officials said. He was 96.

The cause of death was not made public. A spokeswoman for Hygeia hospital said only that he had been treated there the past two weeks.

Dassin, a leftist activist whose more than 20 films also included “Topkapi,” abandoned Hollywood in 1950 during the Communist blacklisting era.

Five years later, he won wide acclaim for “Rififi,” famous for its long heist sequence that was free of dialogue. The movie won him the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival, where he met Mercouri.

He married the actress-politician in 1966 and settled permanently in Athens. Dassin directed his wife in seven films, including 1960’s “Never on Sunday,” in which she gained international notice for her portrayal of a kindhearted prostitute.

Reacting to news of the director’s death, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis called Dassin “a first-generation Greek.”

“Greece mourns the loss of a rare human being, a significant artist and a true friend,” Karamanlis said in a statement. “His passion, his relentless creative energy, his fighting spirit and his nobility will remain unforgettable.”

After Mercouri’s death in 1994, Dassin focused on her main unrealized goal while she was Greece’s culture minister: trying to persuade the British Museum to return the Elgin Marbles, a large collection of sculptures taken from the Parthenon by a Scottish diplomat nearly 200 years ago.

“If there is anything I want to be remembered for it is for fulfilling Melina’s dream,” he told The Associated Press in a 1997 interview.

Dassin’s Hollywood credits include “Reunion in France,” a 1942 wartime romance with Joan Crawford and John Wayne; “Brute Force”, a 1947 prison drama starring Burt Lancaster; and the detective thriller “The Naked City” in 1948.

His 1974 film “The Rehearsal” was based on the Greek student rebellions that helped bring down a 1967-74 military junta that had forced Dassin and Mercouri into exile in Paris.

In 1980, Dassin made the Canadian-backed film “Circle of Two,” starring Richard Burton as an aged artist with a romantic fixation on a teenage student, played by Tatum O’Neal. Dassin was disheartened by its weak box office performance and never made another film.

Born Dec. 18, 1911, in Middletown, Conn., to a Jewish barber who emigrated from Russia, Dassin was raised in working-class neighborhoods around New York.

He joined New York’s Yiddish Theater in 1936 and wrote adaptations of theater plays for radio.

After moving to Hollywood, Dassin worked as an assistant to Alfred Hitchcock on “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” A year later, he directed his first film, “The Tell-Tale Heart” based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story. He moved on to make films at MGM, Universal and 20th Century Fox.

Dassin, who was active in leftist political causes, was denounced by Hollywood contemporaries as being a Communist enough to be placed on the era’s infamous blacklists.

He moved to London in 1950 to shoot his next film, “Night and the City.” Dassin then lived in Italy and France before returning to the cinema with “Rififi.”

After meeting Mercouri, he began to build his career around her.

In 1974, Mercouri gave up acting after being elected to the Greek parliament as a fiery Socialist. She became culture minister in 1981 and served in the post for more than eight years, setting her sights on returning the 2,500-year-old Parthenon sculptures to their homeland.

After his wife’s death, Dassin created the Melina Mercouri Foundation to continue her work. The main goal of the foundation was to push for the creation of a new Acropolis museum big enough to reunite the marbles held in the British Museum with those remaining in Greece.

After repeated delays, the glass and concrete museum at the foot of the Acropolis is set to open to the public in September — with plaster casts replacing the works still displayed in London.

Dassin’s funeral arrangements were not immediately available. He had expressed a wish to be buried alongside Mercouri in central Athens’ First Cemetery.