LOS ANGELES - John Schlesinger, director of the Oscar-winning "Midnight Cowboy" and thrillers like "The Falcon and the Snowman" explored lonely underdogs in modern society, died Friday. He was 77.
The British-born filmmaker had a debilitating stroke in December 2000, and his condition deteriorated significantly in recent weeks. He was taken off life support at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs on Thursday and died early Friday, hospital spokeswoman Eva Saltonstall said.
"He did pass this morning," she said, declining any further information.
Schlesinger broke ground with 1969's "Midnight Cowboy," which starred Jon Voight as a naive Texan who turns to prostitution to survive in New York and Dustin Hoffman as the scuzzy, ailing vagrant Ratso Rizzo.
"Shakespeare said it best in Hamlet, 'We will never see the likes of him again,'" Hoffman said Friday in a statement.
The film's homosexual theme was regarded as scandalous, but the tale of underdogs trying to survive in a merciless metropolis was embraced by critics and Hollywood despite its shocking sequences.
Based on a novel by James Leo Herlihy, "Midnight Cowboy" was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won three - best director, best picture and best adapted screenplay. It was the only X-rated film ever to win the Oscar for best picture; reflecting changing standards, the rating was later lowered to an "R."
The stocky, baldheaded filmmaker - who was gay - said in 1970: "I'm only interested in one thing - that is tolerance. I'm terribly concerned about people and the limitation of freedom. It's important to get people to care a little for someone else. That's why I'm more interested in the failures of this world than the successes."
After "Midnight Cowboy" he explored homosexuality again in his next project with 1971's "Sunday Bloody Sunday," which starred Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson as acquaintances who each reluctantly share a love for the same young man. The director received another Oscar nomination for the film.
The characters in Schlesinger's films often struggled with their place in the world, and he depicted them as lonely, disenchanted and sometimes forgotten. In 1975, he directed an adaptation of the Nathanael West novel "The Day of the Locust," about young wannabe-stars who find only disappointment in Hollywood.
Schlesinger himself felt an estrangement from his own success. "If I've ever had any commercial success, it's been a total fluke. I wouldn't have known 'Midnight Cowboy' would have done so well," Schlesinger said in 1990.
But he wasn't above directing commercial films, like his 1975 thriller "Marathon Man." That teamed him again with Hoffman, who played an innocent man tortured for information by Laurence Olivier, a hiding Nazi war criminal with a penchant for drilling teeth.
That turned Schlesinger toward more thrillers, including the 1985 tale of true-life spy skullduggery "The Falcon and the Snowman," starring Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton as two young Americans convicted of spying for the Soviet Union.
Schlesinger said he thought the movie was in some ways "a black farce about American security."
Both protagonists - one a seminary dropout, the other a drug dealer - were depicted as depressed and isolated. "It's kind of pathetic. ... Both of them are," Schlesinger said in 1994. "It's one of the things, also, that appealed to me."
Schlesinger established himself as one of England's most promising young directors in 1962 with "A Kind of Loving," which starred Alan Bates as a man who marries his pregnant lover only to find himself ill-prepared for commitments.
He followed that with 1963's "Billy Liar," about a lazy young man who hides from responsibility by daydreaming - one of his dreams is about a young woman played by then-newcomer Julie Christie.
Christie worked with Schlesinger again on his next film, "Darling," which won her an Academy Award for best actress in 1965 for her role as a ruthless model who bullies her way to success. Schlesinger was nominated for best director.
His other films included 1987's "The Believers," starring Martin Sheen as a psychiatrist fighting a voodoo cult, and 1988's "Madame Sousatzka," which featured Shirley MacLaine as an eccentric piano teacher who befriends a 15-year-old student but clashes with him over whether he should try to earn money from his talent.
He started the 1990s with a story about how little neighbors can know about each other - "Pacific Heights," with Michael Keaton playing a malicious tenant who starts out charming but begins to terrorize his landlords, Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith.
Other notable films included 1995's "Cold Comfort Farm," about an orphan who moves in with her eccentric, agrarian distant-relatives, and 1996's "Eye for an Eye," in which Sally Field played a mother-turned-vigilante who hunts down the rapist killer of her young daughter, who was freed from prison on a legal technicality.
"It's more human to be frightened," Schlesinger said about his characters in 1994. "I've always had more sympathy for the struggler, the underdog, the person who isn't so much glamorous as on the fringe of everything."
His last film was the 2000 comedy "The Next Best Thing" - about a straight woman (Madonna) who decides to have a child with her gay friend (Rupert Everett).
Born in London in 1926, Schlesinger started out as a character actor for stage, film and television and also made documentaries such as 1961's "Terminus," about a day in the life of a train station.
The director lived in Palm Springs with photographer Michael Childers, his companion of 30 years.