Wolfgang Petersen, blockbuster director of 'Das Boot,' 'Air Force One,' 'Troy,' dies at 81

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Wolfgang Petersen, the German director whose Oscar-nominated submarine film “Das Boot” propelled him to directing Hollywood projects such as Brad Pitt in “Troy," George Clooney in "The Perfect Storm" and Harrison Ford in "Air Force One," has died. He was 81.

Petersen's representative Michelle Bega told USA TODAY the director died Friday at his home in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

Born in Emden, Germany, Petersen's searing portrayal of a WWII German U-boat in 1981's "Das Boot" ("The Boat") earned six Oscar nominations, with two nominations for Petersen: best director and best adapted screenplay.

The anti-war film also caught Hollywood’s attention.

Brad Pitt talks 'Troy' stunt on ATV: "We got in trouble for that."

Brad Pitt, left, and German director Wolfgang Petersen appear at the world premiere of "Troy" in Berlin on May 9, 2004. Petersen, 81, died Aug. 12 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Brad Pitt, left, and German director Wolfgang Petersen appear at the world premiere of "Troy" in Berlin on May 9, 2004. Petersen, 81, died Aug. 12 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

Petersen went on to direct Clint Eastwood as a Secret Service agent in the 1993 thriller "In the Line of Fire" and Dustin Hoffman in the 1995 global pandemic virus thriller "Outbreak."

Ford portrayed President James Marshall, whose plane is hijacked by terrorists in Peterson's 1997 thriller "Air Force One," one of the most popular action films of the 1990s.

Glenn Close, who played Vice President Kathryn Bennett, recalls that even though the action set was intense, Petersen brought levity, especially filming a scene at a huge table in the War Room.

"Wolfgang set a remote-controlled camera that could rotate in place, seamlessly covering all of us, one after another," Close told USA TODAY in a statement. "You knew the camera would pause on you by his hilarious direction while setting up the shot. He would point to us in turn and say, 'Acting ... acting ... NO acting ... NO acting ... ACTING ... aaaacting!' He didn't waste anyone's time. My memory is of a man full of joie de vivre who was doing what he most loved to do."

Ford's iconic "Air Force One" line "Get off of my plane!" was written as temporary dialogue in the script, which screenwriter Andrew Marlowe wanted to improve on.

"That line is like Schwarzenegger's 'I'll be back' line in 'Terminator.' It didn't look like much on the page," says Marlowe. "But in Harrison and Wolfgang's hands, it ended up being such a visceral line. Wolfgang was so good at understanding those emotional moments and the understated heroic personality."

Petersen helmed the 2000 box office hit "The Perfect Storm," the tale of doomed Gloucester fishermen starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg.

In 2004, Petersen directed "Troy,"  a Hollywood version of Homer's epic, showcasing a bulked-up Brad Pitt as the hero Achilles, Eric Bana as Hector, Orlando Bloom as Paris,  and "Succession" star Brian Cox as Agamemnon.

Petersen was surprised before filming to see Pitt, who was set to play the Greek warrior hero who leads the fight against Troy. Pitt had long dark hair, a beard and had lost weight for another role.

"I was shocked when I saw him," Petersen told Vanity Fair in 2019. "I said, ‘Jesus Christ, that’s not how Achilles looks.' "

Over beers at a German restaurant, Pitt promised Petersen that he would look like the Hollywood version of Achilles. The star followed through, pulling off his largest, physical transformation as the legendary Greek hero. As Pitt told USA TODAY this year. "I worked my (butt) off for that role."

The director shook off studio pressure to cast Nicole Kidman in the pivotal role of Helen of Troy, instead giving the part to a newcomer, German actress Diane Kruger.

Diane Kruger as Helen of Troy in  "Troy."
Diane Kruger as Helen of Troy in "Troy."

"Wolfgang was one of the first directors to take a chance on me," Kruger said in a statement to USA TODAY. "He was protective and kind toward me and I will cherish my memories of him forever."

Bana, who trained extensively with Pitt to perform their epic battle scene without stunt performers, tweeted his farewell, stating that he loved working with Petersen on "Troy."

"My favorite thing about his directing style, was his ability to vividly describe the scene that would appear just before the one you were about to shoot. After that you were more than ready," Bana wrote.

Tyler Mane, the one-time pro wrestler who starred as Ajax, quoted Sean Bean's Odysseus to pay homage to Petersen on Instagram.

"And so we ask ourselves: will our actions echo across the centuries? Will strangers hear our names long after we are gone, and wonder who we were, how bravely we fought, how fiercely we loved?" Mane asked.

"In your case, sir, the answer is a resounding, 'yes,' " Mane wrote, adding, "Godspeed, Wolfgang."

With a budget of nearly $185 million, "Troy" was one of the most expensive movies produced at the time. Though critically maligned, it became one of the highest-grossing films of 2004, with a worldwide box office of nearly $500 million.

Petersen is survived by second wife Maria-Antoinette Borgel, a German script supervisor and assistant director he wed in 1978, son Daniel Petersen and two grandchildren.

Contributing: Jake Coyle, The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Wolfgang Petersen dies: 'Das Boot,' 'Air Force One,' 'Troy' director