Robert Mulligan’s best known film is To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and while his directorial style did not bear a personal stamp or distinctive vision, he was nonetheless a prolific director who often elicited strong performances from his cast.
Born in the Bronx to a policeman father on August 23rd, 1925, Mulligan intended to become a priest until he served in the US Marines during World War II. After the war, Mulligan emerged a different man with newfound ambitions of a career in media, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree from Fordham University in 1948. Like Sidney Lumet, Martin Ritt, and John Frankenheimer, Mulligan’s career catalyzed from his work in television. He worked entry-level jobs in the New York Times and CBS, and within three years, he worked his way up the ranks and worked on prestigious television programs like Suspense, The Alcoa Hour, and The Philo Television Playhouse.
In 1957, Mulligan directed his first feature film, the absorbing Fear Strikes Out starring Anthony Perkins as a professional baseball player, Jimmy Piersall, who suffered mental illness. Fear Strikes Out marked the first collaboration between Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula, who maintained a decades long successful professional relationship.
Before directing another film, Mulligan returned to television for a few years, winning an Emmy for directing the TV movie “The Moon of the Wedding” (1958), starring Laurence Olivier. Mulligan returned to the silver screen with The Rat Race (1960), a rom-com starring Tony Curtis and Debbie Reynolds. Mulligan and Curtis worked together once more in The Great Imposter (1961), a biopic about Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr. He also directed box-office hit Come September (1961), starring classic movie stars Rock Hudson, Gina Lollobrigida, Sandra Dee, and Bobby Darin in his first major film role.
In 1962, Mulligan directed two films: The Spiral Road, a forgettable adventure film again starring Rock Hudson, and, of course, To Kill a Mockingbird, his most remembered film for which he was nominated for the 1963 Academy Award for Best Director. His next film was Love with the Proper Stranger (1963)—starring Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen—a downbeat drama that gracefully infused humor and romance with more taboo subject matter, such as abortion.
In the late 1960s, Mulligan often took marginalized outsiders as his main inspiration and subjects for his films. Robert Redford starred in an acclaimed performance as a queer movie star in Inside Daisy Clover (1965), which again starred Natalie Wood. Mulligan also centered on the a young teacher's experienced challenges in New York’s school system in Up the Down Staircase (1967), and offered an unconventional spin on the western genre with The Stalking Moon (1968), which reunited Mulligan and Gregory Peck.
In 1971, Mulligan directed his second biggest hit, Summer of ‘42, a drama about an affair between a teenage boy and an older woman. Mulligan worked through the 70s and 80s, but his career suffered from alcoholism and his films often drew little critical and commercial in attention, with an exception of his final film, Man in the Moon (1991), a touching coming of age film which stars Reese Witherspoon in her film debut and served as the perfect swansong for a sympathetic, human director.
Throughout his career, Mulligan paid keen, sensitive attention to the nuanced highs and lows experienced by children and adolescents, and he elicited strong performances from the young people he cast (Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, and Reese Witherspoon, as aforementioned). While the quality of his films varied and a consistent vision is absent across his work, Mulligan nonetheless held a strong narrative ability and remains one of the finest American directors of actors. Mulligan died at age 83 on December 20th, 2008 from heart disease.