Director of ‘Philadelphia’ Jonathan Demme dies at age 73

Listen
 FILE - In this Sept. 3, 2008 file photo, filmmaker Jonathan Demme poses during the photo call of the movie

FILE - In this Sept. 3, 2008 file photo, filmmaker Jonathan Demme poses during the photo call of the movie "Burn After Reading." (AP Photo/Joel Ryan, File)

20170426-Philadelphia imp

Jonathan Demme, who died Wednesday morning, had a special relationship with Philadelphia.

After his Oscar-winning sweep with the crime thriller “Silence of the Lambs ” (1991) Demme’s next project was much more personal. He had a close friend with AIDS, and wanted to do something that would contribute to a cure for the disease. As a filmmaker, the only thing he knew how to do was make a movie.

“At the time, it was very challenging ,” said Demme in 2013, on the 20th anniversary of “Philadelphia.” “We didn’t want to appeal to people like us who already had a predisposition to care about people with AIDS. We wanted to reach people who couldn’t care less about people with AIDS. That was our target audience.”

At first that movie was going to be called “People Like Us,” after the song by the Talking Heads. When he settled on shooting in Philadelphia, the city’s character became the title.

“Philadelphia” (1993) was Demme’s second great, popular achievement, winning two Academy Awards.

In 2015, Demme announced he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

His most recent visit to Philadelphia was just six weeks ago, in March, when he sold his vast collection of Haitian folk art through a local auction house, Material Culture. Demme had bought thousands of pieces during his many trips to Haiti, where he shot two documentary films.

He sold the collection because he needed a “psychic cleansing.”

“At a certain point, a collector can start seeing themselves as someone who has imprisoned hundreds of beautiful beings, and isn’t it time to set them free?” he said. “That’s what makes it easy to part with stuff — it’s going to be seen now. I’d had my shot at it, I’ve drunk fully from it. Now, let’s pass it on.”

Part of his personal cleansing was to prepare his personal papers to be archived at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

The owner of Material Culture said Demme appeared ill at the time of the auction, but continued to work on films until the very end.

The Academy Award-winning film director died of cancer of the esophagus. He was 73.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.