According to his daughter Molly, Penn died in his Manhattan home of congestive heart failure. He had celebrated his 88th birthday one day earlier.
Penn’s filmmaking career began in the late 1950s. After establishing himself as an acclaimed television director, he made his feature film debut with the 1958 western The Left Handed Gun. He followed it up in 1962 with The Miracle Worker, a retelling of Anne Sullivan’s attempts to communicate with the deaf and blind Helen Keller.
The director was fired from his third film – The Train – soon after production had commenced, as per the request of star Burt Lancaster. He was replaced by John Frankenheimer, and the film was released to much critical acclaim (sans Penn’s credit).
His next film Mickey One starred Warren Beatty as a stand-up comic on the run from the Mafia. Heavily influenced by French New Wave directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, the film was met with mixed reviews.
However, when it was time to choose a director for Beatty’s upcoming gangster vehicle Bonnie and Clyde, the Hollywood heartthrob campaigned heavily for Penn to take the job (after Truffaut and Godard had turned it down).
Not only did Penn infuse the film with the French New Wave sensibility, he helped connect the story of the infamous bank robbers from the Great Depression to the disenfranchised youth of America.
Graphic in its depiction of violence and sexuality (often directly juxtaposed with one another), Bonnie and Clyde caused a storm of controversy upon release. However, influential film critics Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert applauded the film’s achievements, and audiences embraced the picture, making it an international box office success.
The film’s release (and subsequent success) is now considered a watershed moment in the New Hollywood movement. From the late 1960s until the early 1980s, studios allowed independent auteurs such as Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Ford Coppola to embrace European cinematic sensibilities, and deliver some of the greatest films of all time.
Although none of Penn’s follow-up films would achieve the same cultural significance of Bonnie and Clyde, many of them were critically respected, including 1969’s Alice’s Restaurant and 1970’s Little Big Man. Penn’s final feature was the 1996 TV film Inside. In later years, he became an executive producer of Law and Order, and was also president of the Actors Studio in New York.
Although nominated three times for the Best Director Academy Award, he never won. Arthur Penn remains the unsung hero of the New Hollywood movement.