Schlesinger was born in London into a Jewish family. He went on to work in television as an actor after graduating from Uppingham School and Balliol College, Oxford.
One of his first films, the documentary Terminus (1960) earned him a Venice Film Festival Gold Lion and a British Academy Award. Schlesinger's movies covered a range of subjects and reflect his personal interest, for example:A Kind of Loving (1962) and Billy Liar (1963) were concerned with the life of characters based in the North of England: Darling (1965) described tartly the modern urban way of life in London and was one of the first films about swinging London: Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) is an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's popular novel; and Yanks (1979) is a love story set to the back drop of war.
Schlesinger also directed Timon of Athens (1965) for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the musical I and Albert (1972) at London's Piccadilly Theatre. From 1973 he was an associate director of the Royal National Theatre. This merging of theatrical and film directing reflects Schlesinger's interest in different aesthetics and stylisation.
Openly gay, Schlesinger dealt with homosexuality in Midnight Cowboy, Sunday Bloody Sunday and The Next Best Thing. He was interested in the historical and artistic treatment of the male form.
Schlesinger also proclaimed his political loyalties in 1992 when he directed a party political broadcast for the Conservative Party which featured then Prime Minister John Major returning to Brixton in south London where he had spent his teenage years, which highlighted his background.
Schlesinger died on 25 Jul 2003. He was survived by his life partner photographer Michael Childers.
- A Kind of Loving (1962)
- Billy Liar (1963)
- Darling (1965)
- Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)
- Midnight Cowboy (1969)
- Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)
- The Day of the Locust (1975)
- Marathon Man (1976)
- Yanks (1979)
- Honky Tonk Freeway (1981)
- Separate Tables (1983) (TV)
- An Englishman Abroad (1983) (TV)
- The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
- The Believers (1987)
- Madame Sousatzka (1988)
- Pacific Heights (1990)
- A Question of Attribution (1991) (TV)
- The Innocent (1993)
- Cold Comfort Farm (1995) (TV)
- Eye for an Eye (1996)
- The Tale of Sweeney Todd (1998) (TV)
- The Next Best Thing (2000)