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Richard Thomas
Photo by Joan Marcus.

TWELVE ANGRY MEN, by American playwright Reginald Rose, was originally written as a teleplay in 1954 and broadcast live on the CBS drama anthology, Studio One.  In 1957, Rose wrote the screenplay for a film version, which he co-produced with actor Henry Fonda.  The play has subsequently been updated and revived: a 1964 theater version for London’s West End; another film version in 1997, directed by William Friedkin for Showtime; and the wildly successful stage version produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company.

The 1954 Teleplay

 The play was inspired by Rose’s own experience of jury duty on a manslaughter case in New York City.  At first, he had been reluctant to serve on a jury but, he wrote, “the moment I walked into the courtroom and found myself facing a strange man whose fate was suddenly more or less in my hands, me entire attitude changed.”  He was greatly impressed by the gravity of the situation, the somber activity of the court, and the “absolute finality” of the decision that he and his fellow jurors would have to make. 

He also thought the since no one other than the jurors had any idea of what went on in a jury room, “a play taking place entirely within a jury room might be an exciting and possibly moving experience for an audience.” (“Author’s Commentary” on TWELVE ANGRY MEN in Six Television Plays).  What TV viewers saw was a gripping drama in which eleven jurors believe the youthful defendant in a capital murder trial is guilty, while one juror stands up courageously for what he believes is justice and tries to persuade the others to his way of thinking.  That one juror feels that there is a “reasonable doubt” – to the frustration of his eleven colleagues – thereby preventing a quick verdict.  During the heated debate, the hidden preconceptions and assumptions of the jurors are revealed.  When faced with playing the hangman, each juror is forced to face himself.

The teleplay has only one setting, the jury room, although both film versions and later stage productions do add a washroom.  The room is hot and humid since there is no air conditioning and the fan does not work.  The atmosphere is claustrophobic, and the men are understandably short-tempered.  The static setting, in which no one comes or goes, is overcome by the characters’ dialogue and in the way they move around the stage as the arguments ebb and flow.

The 1957 Film

 The success of the TV play (three Emmy Awards) eventually resulted in a film adaptation.  Actor Henry Fonda saw the play and immediately tried to interest studios in a film version, but none thought it commercial enough.  He then formed a partnership with author Reginald Rose and they produced the film themselves.  Sidney Lumet, whose prior directorial credits included dramas for television productions such as The Alcoa Hour and Studio One, was recruited to direct.  TWELVE ANGRY MEN was Lumet’s first feature film, and for Fonda and Rose, it was their first and only roles as film producers.  Fonda later stated that he would never again produce a film.

The ensemble cast included Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, John Fiedler, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Ed Binns, Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman, George Voskovec, Robert Webber, and Joseph Sweeney.  Lumet rehearsed the cast for two weeks, and with his cameraman Boris Kaufman managed to achieve remarkable pace and rhythm:  with the exception of three minutes of screen-time split between the beginning and the end and two short scenes in an adjoining washroom, the entire movie takes place within the claustrophobic set of the jury room.

Film provides opportunities a stage director does not have; in the movie, director Lumet achieved movement and variety by frequently varying the camera angles.  The changes in camera angles multiply as the dramatic tension increases.  Also, he progressively lowered the level from which the movie was shot.  The first third was shot from above eye level, the second third at eye level, and the last third from below eye level.  In the last third, the ceiling of the room began to appear, giving a sense that the room was getting smaller.  Lumet, who began his career as a director of photography, stated that his “intention in using these techniques with cinematographer Boris Kaufman was to create a nearly palpable claustrophobia.”

Filmed in 20 days at a cost of $340,000, the film still lost money and Fonda never received his deferred salary.  He stated later, though, that he did not mind and that he was proud of the film’s status as an American classic.  When asked which of his many films he held in particular regard, TWELVE ANGRY MEN was always in his top three, admitting that it was because he himself had produced it and was responsible for getting it made despite lack of interest from the major studios.

Upon its 1957 release, TWELVE ANGRY MEN received much critical acclaim, but it was not a popular success.  It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Picture and Best Writing (Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium).  Though it failed to win any of these Oscars, it won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival of 1957.

Today the film is considered a “classic” and is highly regarded from both a critical and popular standpoint.  Critic Roger Ebert lists it as one of his “Great Movies,” and the American Film Institute named TWELVE ANGRY MEN the 42nd most inspiring film, and recently, named it the 87th best film of the past hundred years.

Other Adaptations and Remakes

 Just as the play script is available for purchase, the screenplay has also been published, and Rose eventually wrote several stage adaptations of the story.  One was a proposed Broadway version with Henry Fonda that was never produced, and another, in 1964, had well-known British actor Leo Genn – under the direction of Margaret Webster – appearing in the “legit” theater version premiere in London’s West End.  In other theatrical adaptations in which female actors are cast, the play is retitled Twelve Angry Jurors or Twelve Angry Women.

TWELVE ANGRY MEN was remade as a television movie for Showtime in 1997, in response to questions about “reasonable doubt” that were raised during the infamous O.J. Simpson murder trial.  Directed by William Friedkin, the remake starred Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott, James Gandolfini, Tony Danza, William Petersen, Ossie Davis, Hume Cronyn, and Courtney B. Vance.  In this production, the judge was a woman (Mary McDonnell) and four of the jurors were African-American (Davis, Vance, Mykelti Williamson, Dorian Harewood).  Unlike earlier versions, this one featured a black racist (Williamson) instead of a white racist as Juror #10, in order to demonstrate that bigotry is not limited to whites.  It also introduced other minority jurors, including Hispanic juror Edward James Olmos. Although striving for diversity, in interviews producers said they decided against putting a woman in the jury because they didn’t want to change the title.  Although “updated,” most of the action and dialogue of the film was identical to the original.  Modernizations included a prohibition on smoking in the jury room, the changing of references to income and pop culture figures, more dialogue relating to race, and occasional profanity.

Roundabout Theatre Production

 Director Scott Ellis told The Washington Post that the Roundabout decided to mount the production after an informal reading during which “something clicked” with the audience.  One reason, he opined, might be the timeless appeal of examining the American legal system, a fascination reflected by the abundance of TV shows like Law and Order.

The fantastic response to TWELVE ANGRY MEN spawned the first-ever touring production for Roundabout.  Richard Thomas continues to headline the production as Juror #8.