The stroke was a complication from recent spinal surgery. The veteran director, whose career spanned nearly five decades, had checked into L.A.'s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in May for a back operation. He had been discharged but suffered blood clots and was recently readmitted to the hospital.
His surgery had forced him to miss the New York premiere of his final completed project, HBO's Path to War, an examination of the White House politics leading into the Vietnam War.
The critically praised drama was the latest in a line of political and historical cable television movies that had restored his reputation as a first-rate director after his career floundered following the failure of the 1977 big-screen thriller Black Sunday about a terrorist plot to bomb the Super Bowl.
"John was one of a now diminished band of directors who came out of the era of live television," says Charles Champlin, the former Los Angeles Times film critic and author of John Frankenheimer: A Conversation with Charles Champlin, based on the reminiscences of the man Champlin described to E! Online as "a wonderful raconteur" and "a brilliant director."
Born in New York of half-Irish, half-German-Jewish heritage, Frankenheimer gave up his pro tennis aspirations after learning to be a cameraman while stationed in California during a stint in the Air Force. He parlayed that knowledge into a job at CBS.
Eventually he graduated to directing live TV dramas in the 1950s. He would go on to direct more than 150 shows on series such as Playhouse 90, including a production of the alcoholism drama Days of Wine and Roses, starring Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie.
The gradual demise of the live-television art form forced Frankenheimer into movies. His debut picture in 1957, The Young Stranger, about a father's relationship with a troubled teenage son, was well received.
But it was 1962's The Manchurian Candidate, starring Frank Sinatra, that brought him fame. The late film critic Pauline Kael was spellbound by the story of brainwashing and political intrigue set in the aftermath of the Korean War. "Although it's a thriller," she wrote, "it may be most sophisticated political satire ever made in Hollywood."
A year earlier Frankenheimer had directed The Young Savages with Burt Lancaster as an idealistic district attorney. Although the feisty star and the taskmaster director did not hit it off initially, they soon collaborated again with great success on Birdman of Alcatraz, in which Lancaster played a murderer who finds personal redemption through studying ornithology.
Lancaster went on to star in several of Frankenheimer's best films: the military coup thriller Seven Days in May, the World War II action-adventure The Train and the sky-diving melodrama The Gypsy Moths.
An active liberal democrat, Frankenheimer suffered a personal blow when Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. The presidential candidate had been staying at Frankenheimer's home and had been driven by the director to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Kennedy was gunned down.
A tall good-looking man with thick floppy hair, ever ready to speak his mind, Frankenheimer acknowledged he had a drinking problem for many years.
And after the heavily hyped Black Sunday flopped with critics and audiences alike, work opportunities dwindled and the choices he did make proved disappointing.
But he refused to give in.
"No matter how bad the circumstances are, you can win; you can triumph over it. I believe that about life, too," he once told MovieMaker Magazine.
"The triumphs are huge, the failures are enormous. The rejection factor is unbelievably difficult to live with. You're working with your instincts and your emotions all the time. But this business has been wonderful to me, it really has."
Although he was never nominated for an Oscar, Frankenheimer was loved by the Emmys. He received 14 Emmy nominations overall and, during his renaissance in the 1990s, won four straight for Outstanding Directing of a Miniseries/Movie from 1994-97 for: Against the Wall, about the Attica prison uprising; The Burning Season, about the ecological wars in the Brazilian rain forest; Andersonville, about the notorious Civil War prison; and George Wallace, the political biography which won Gary Sinise an Emmy for his portrayal of the controversial Southern politician. All these dramas possessed what Frankenheimer acknowledged was the "hard-edged reality" of his best work.
"If there is anyone who can put a pulse into historical and political drama, it's John," Alec Baldwin, who played presidential advisor Robert McNamara in Path to War, said earlier this year during a panel discussion with Frankenheimer.
Frankenheimer is expected to be inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in November.
His other notable movie credits include the cult horror classic Seconds, the film adaptation of The Iceman Cometh and The French Connection II. More recently, he helmed such films as the ill-received Marlon Brando take on The Island of Dr. Moreau, the adrenaline-fueled Robert De Niro spy adventure Ronin and the Ben Affleck action flick Reindeer Games.
He also directed several commercials, including Ambush, part of BMW's high-profile series of minimovies starring Clive Owen and directed by acclaimed filmmakers like Frankenheimer, Ang Lee, Guy Ritchie and David Fincher.
Frankenheimer had also signed on to direct a prequel to The Exorcist, which was supposed to begin filming in the spring. But he had to drop out due to his back problems. (The shoot has been pushed back to September, but no new director has been announced.)
Frankenheimer is survived by his third wife, actress Evans Evans, and two daughters from his second marriage.