The HOLLYWOOD sign, back when it read HOLLYWOODLAND, used to be illuminated by 4,000 lights. That was a century ago. By the 1970s, the lights were in an almost constant cycle of disrepair and half-hearted renovation. Why they were never fully replaced goes a long way toward explaining the short-term memory of so many people who work in the movie business. You could reasonably argue that the disappearance of those lights mirrored the long march of the loss of the great talents and characters that made the movie business so enticing to the rest of the world.

I have a suggestion. Why not, starting now, begin the process of returning those lights to the sign, with each one representing one of the human lights of the town that has flickered out. I would begin with William Friedkin, who died this week at the age of 87. He had spent a few days in the hospital, returned home to the house he shared with Sherry Lansing, his wife of more than three decades, and died in his sleep.

Friedkin, “Billy” to his friends, was as much a talent and a character as any of those burning lights that came before him. Actually, he was more of a Catherine wheel than a simple light. He was a rascal with a wicked sense of humor, a Chicago swagger, and an infectious, conspiratorial smile. Billy was generous to others, a rarity in Hollywood—especially toward his fellow filmmakers. He was a man of irresistible certitude, particularly about the art of making movies, a subject he knew a good deal about.

William Friedkin on the set of The Exorcist in 1973.

Billy was, for instance, not a fan of Method actors. He was more of a “Come in, stand there, say that, leave … ” type of director. As Patrick Kidd pointed out in The Times of London, “When Nick Nolte was his leading man, the actor had thought carefully about his part and wrote 300 pages of backstory. ‘It was horrible, and I threw it away,’ Friedkin said. On set, Nolte asked if he had read it. ‘Yes, it was great,’ the director said. ‘Now, come in through the door, stand there and … ’”

Everything about Billy was organically original. Even the way he hiked up his pants. The obituaries that have run in papers around the world this week mention some of his classics, such as The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A., The Exorcist, and Sorcerer. His output was protean for sure, but even if he had gotten by on half the success or half the talent, there were so many reasons to like and to admire him. Men are often defined by their wives, and in this case Billy had few peers. Sherry Lansing, the first woman to run a major film studio—Twentieth Century Fox, then Paramount—adored her husband, and you could tell that the feeling was mutual. When they decided to get married, Sherry’s friend Sue Mengers, herself a female pioneer in the film business, told her, “You’ll never be bored.”

I met Sherry before I met Billy. And we met “cute,” as they say in the movie business. That is to say, it was contentious at first. When Vanity Fair produced its first Hollywood Issue, back in the early 90s, I included a portfolio of the reigning monarchs, with many of the portraits shot by Annie Leibovitz. For scheduling reasons, we couldn’t get Sherry and Annie together. But Annie said she had a photo of Sherry that she had taken for American Express but that hadn’t been used. In the picture, Sherry is sitting poolside in a bathing suit. She was, and is, one of Hollywood’s great beauties, and so I included it in the portfolio.

He was a rascal with a wicked sense of humor, a Chicago swagger, and an infectious, conspiratorial smile.

There was a big hoo-ha when the issue came out, surrounding sexism and having the only female studio head photographed in a bathing suit. I certainly got the point of the criticism. But Sherry looked so beautiful and incredibly glamorous in the picture. She had to issue her own objections to the photo. Later she confessed that she had to act outraged because it was what was demanded of her. Secretly she loved the picture.

Sherry Lansing, photographed by Annie Leibovitz, as seen in Vanity Fair’s Hollywood Portfolio, April 1995.

Billy and Sherry were annual dinner guests at the Vanity Fair Oscar party. And they were perfect guests: dressed up nice, got there on time, and talked to everyone. As the years went on, my wife and I had a loose dinner-party group with Sherry and Billy, and Candice Bergen and her husband, Marshall. If we were in Los Angeles at the same time, we’d do it there. In New York we’d have dinner somewhere fancy, like Majorelle or Marea. They were wonderful evenings, and we will continue them, but without the spark that was Billy.

One of our last dinners together was at their Italianate house, in Bel Air, overlooking Los Angeles. It was soon after the tragic Alec Baldwin shooting mishap, during the filming of Rust. Billy made a point of saying that not once, on any of his films, had he ever had a real gun on the set. He said that the guns used in The French Connection were essentially cap guns. He hated guns. And—and this goes a long way toward explaining that part of him that was so incredibly alluring—he said that, for the chase scene in The French Connection, he just started filming it without getting official permits from the city beforehand. Now, New York was a more freewheeling city back then, but still.

When they decided to get married, Sherry’s friend Sue Mengers, herself a female pioneer in the film business, told her, “You’ll never be bored.”

A year or so ago, Billy asked my documentary-producing partner Annabelle Dunne to work with him on what will be his last film, a remake of Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Caine Mutiny. Dan Cohen at Paramount, Sherry’s old home, stepped in to finance it. Annabelle said Billy cut the scenes with relish. “This has got to move like a bat out of hell!” he told her. He got Kiefer Sutherland to take the Captain Queeg part, which had been originally played by Humphrey Bogart. And brought on Jason Clarke and Jake Lacy, two actors he admired greatly. Annabelle said the crew members, who were stellar, were completely enamored of Billy.

Because of his age, they had trouble getting the film insured, so they came up with a novel plan to have a backup director. The insurer agreed to go ahead with this idea, but it needed an actual name. A few days later, Billy called Annabelle and said, “I have the guy. You ready? Write this down. O.K., it’s Guillermo del Toro. You got that, honey?” Guillermo, a three-time Academy Award winner, had indeed signed on and said he planned to show up every day for the sake of the insurance—although he specified to everyone on the set that this was 100 percent Billy’s movie.

Friedkin and Lansing in 2007. Superagent Sue Mengers encouraged Sherry to marry Friedkin: “You’ll never be bored.”

As Annabelle wrote to me, “Working with Billy opened up an entirely different side of the person I’d known for years. Socially, he was always witty and wry, but at work I saw a whole other chip speed: thinking three scenes ahead, seeing it all in his mind. Communicating this all to his cast and crew. He also clearly had faith in a smart audience who could keep up. He didn’t feel the need to spell things out or make them overly obvious.”

“I have the guy. You ready? Write this down. O.K., it’s Guillermo del Toro. You got that, honey?”

One day Guillermo couldn’t be on the set, because he was promoting Pinocchio, and so he sent J. J. Abrams in his stead. Steven Spielberg sent in his support for the production. Billy had that effect on other filmmakers. A master of timing and professionalism, he finished shooting the film a day ahead of schedule and delivered the final cut a month or so before his death. It will be premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where he was given a lifetime-achievement award a decade ago. At some point this fall, it will be streamed on Paramount+.

I’ve never had a disagreement with Billy. But he could be cantankerous. Sherry loves telling a story about a dinner party they were at when Billy got into a heated debate with someone else at the table about the movie The Passion of the Christ. At one point he had had enough and stormed out of the room. A few minutes later, Sherry said her good nights and went to the front door only to discover that Billy had left with their car. Jason Blum, the hugely successful producer of horror films, has a new version of The Exorcist coming out in October. I asked him if he had Billy’s blessing on it. He said no, Billy wanted nothing to do with it. Which I found funny and somewhat ironic considering the fact that Sorcerer was a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 film, The Wages of Fear, and that Billy had just remade Edward Dmytryk’s 1954 version of The Caine Mutiny.

Friedkin talks to Jerry Weintraub at the 1982 Los Angeles premiere of Diner, which Weintraub produced.

Billy’s passing marks another absence in the roster of people I used to love seeing when I went out to Los Angeles. Sue Mengers, the first great female agent, was a dear friend and would throw a dinner party for Fran Lebowitz and me every year around Oscar time. God, I miss her. Bob Evans, who ran Paramount through its golden Godfather period, is another friend whom I miss seeing out there. And Jerry Weintraub, who was about as colorful as you can get, died way too young. He had an extraordinary career that was bookended by working with Elvis and Frank Sinatra on one end and producing the three Ocean’s movies on the other end.

I always wanted to do well by them, even after they were gone. I co-produced a one-woman hit Broadway play about Sue written by John Logan and starring Bette Midler. It was called I’ll Eat You Last. And I made documentaries about both Bob (The Kid Stays in the Picture) and Jerry (His Way) for HBO. When I heard the news about Billy, something told me I had better get cracking on doing a film about him. Oh, wait, I forgot. There already is one. It’s called Friedkin Uncut and it came out five years ago. Like the memory of the man himself, it is something to savor.

Graydon Carter is a Co-Editor at AIR MAIL