By Michael Cieply
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
LOS ANGELES: Sydney Pollack, a Hollywood mainstay as director, producer and sometime actor whose star-laden movies like "The Way We Were," "Tootsie" and "Out of Africa" were among the most successful of the 1970s and '80s, died on Monday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 73.
The cause was cancer, said a representative of the family.
Pollack's career defined an era in which big stars (Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Warren Beatty) and the filmmakers who knew how to wrangle them (Barry Levinson, Mike Nichols) retooled the Hollywood system. Savvy operators, they played studio against studio, staking their fortunes on pictures that served commerce without wholly abandoning art.
Hollywood honored Pollack in return. His movies received multiple Academy Award nominations, and as a director he won an Oscar for his work on the 1985 film "Out of Africa" as well as nominations for directing "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969) and "Tootsie" (1982).
Last fall, Warner Brothers released "Michael Clayton," of which Pollack was a producer and a member of the cast. He delivered a trademark performance as an old-bull lawyer who demands dark deeds from a subordinate, played by George Clooney. ("This is news? This case has reeked from Day One," snaps Pollack's Marty Bach.) The picture received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and a Best Actor nomination for Clooney.
Pollack became a prolific producer of independent films in the latter part of his career. With a partner, the filmmaker Anthony Minghella, he ran Mirage Enterprises, a production company whose films included Minghella's "Cold Mountain" and the documentary "Sketches of Frank Gehry," released last year, the last film directed by Pollack.
Apart from that film, Pollack never directed a movie without stars. His first feature, "The Slender Thread," released by Paramount Pictures in 1965, starred Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft. In his next 19 films every one a romance or drama but for the single comedy, "Tootsie" Pollack worked with Burt Lancaster, Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Nicole Kidman, Streisand and others.
Sydney Irwin Pollack was born on July 1, 1934, in Lafayette, Indiana, and reared in South Bend. By Pollack's own account, in the biographical dictionary "World Film Directors," his father, David, a pharmacist, and his mother, the former Rebecca Miller, were first-generation Russian-Americans who had met at Purdue University.
Pollack developed a love of drama at South Bend High School and, instead of going to college, went to New York and enrolled at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater. He studied there for two years under Sanford Meisner, who was in charge of its acting department, and remained for five more as Meisner's assistant, teaching acting but also appearing onstage and in television.
Curly-haired and almost 6 feet 2 inches tall, Pollack had a notable role in a 1959 "Playhouse 90" telecast of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," an adaptation of the Hemingway novel directed by John Frankenheimer. Earlier, Pollack had appeared on Broadway with Zero Mostel in "A Stone for Danny Fisher" and with Katharine Cornell and Tyrone Power in "The Dark Is Light Enough." But he said later that he probably could not have built a career as a leading man.
Instead, Pollack took the advice of Burt Lancaster, whom he had met while working with Frankenheimer, and turned to directing. Lancaster steered him to the entertainment mogul Lew Wasserman, and through him Pollack landed a directing assignment on the television series "Shotgun Slade."
After a faltering start, he hit his stride on episodes of "Ben Casey, "Naked City," "The Fugitive" and other well-known shows. In 1966 he won an Emmy for directing an episode of "Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater."
From the time he made his first full-length feature, "The Slender Thread," about a social work student coaxing a woman out of suicide on a telephone help line, Pollack had a hit-and-miss relationship with the critics. Writing in The New York Times, A. H. Weiler deplored that film's "sudsy waves of bathos." Pollack himself later pronounced it "dreadful."
But from the beginning of his movie career, he was also perceived as belonging to a generation whose work broke with the immediate past. In 1965, Charles Champlin, writing in The Los Angeles Times, compared Pollack to the director Elliot Silverstein, whose western spoof, "Cat Ballou," had been released earlier that year, and Stuart Rosenberg, soon to be famous for "Cool Hand Luke" (1967). Champlin cited all three as artists who had used television rather than B movies to learn their craft.
Self-critical and never quite at ease with Hollywood, Pollack voiced a constant yearning for creative prerogatives more common on the stage. Yet he dived into the fray. In 1970, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," his bleak fable of love and death among marathon dancers in the Great Depression, based on a Horace McCoy novel, received nine Oscar nominations, including the one for directing. (Gig Young won the best supporting actor award for his performance.)
Two years later, Pollack made the mountain-man saga "Jeremiah Johnson," one of three closely spaced pictures in which he directed Redford.
The second of those films, "The Way We Were," about a pair of ill-fated lovers who meet up later in life, also starred Streisand and was an enormous hit despite critical hostility.
The next, "Three Days of the Condor," another hit, about a bookish CIA worker thrust into a mystery, did somewhat better with the critics. "Tense and involving," said Roger Ebert in The Chicago Sun-Times.
With "Absence of Malice" in 1981, Pollack entered the realm of public debate. The film's story of a newspaper reporter (Sally Field) who is fed a false story by federal officials trying to squeeze information from a businessman (Paul Newman) was widely viewed as a corrective to the adulation of investigative reporters that followed Alan Pakula's hit movie "All the President's Men," with its portrayal of the Watergate scandal.
But only with "Tootsie," in 1982, did Pollack become a fully realized Hollywood player.
By then he was represented by Michael S. Ovitz and the rapidly expanding Creative Artists Agency. So was his leading man, Dustin Hoffman.
As the film a comedy about a struggling actor who disguises himself as a woman to get a coveted television part was being shot for Columbia Pictures, Pollack and Hoffman became embroiled in a semi-public feud, with Ovitz running shuttle diplomacy between them.
Hoffman, who had initiated the project, argued for a more broadly comic approach. But Pollack who played Hoffman's agent in the film was drawn to the seemingly doomed romance between the cross-dressing Hoffman character and the actress played by Jessica Lange.
If Pollack did not prevail on all points, he tipped the film in his own direction. Meanwhile, the movie came in behind schedule, over budget and surrounded by bad buzz.
Yet "Tootsie" was also a winner. It took in more than $177 million at the domestic box office and received 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture. ( Lange took home the film's only Oscar, for best supporting actress.)
Backed by Ovitz, Pollack expanded his reach in the wake of success. Over the next several years, he worked closely with both Tri-Star Pictures, where he was creative consultant, and Universal, where Mirage, his production company, set up shop in 1986.
Pollack reached perhaps his career pinnacle with "Out of Africa." Released by Universal, the film, based on the memoirs of Isak Dinesen, paired Streep and Redford in a period drama that reworked one of the director's favorite themes, that of star-crossed lovers. It captured Oscars for best picture and best director.
Still, Pollack remained uneasy about his cinematic skills. "I was never what I would call a great shooter or visual stylist," he told an interviewer for American Cinematographer last year. And he developed a reputation for caution when it came to directing assignments. Time after time, he expressed interest in directing projects, only to back away. At one point he was to make "Rain Man," a Dustin Hoffman picture ultimately directed by Levinson; at another, an adaptation of "The Night Manager" by John le Carré.
That wariness was undoubtedly fed by his experience with "Havana," a 1990 film that was to be his last with Redford. It seemed to please no one, though Pollack defended it. "To tell you the truth, if I knew what was wrong, I'd have fixed it," Pollack told The Los Angeles Times in 1993.
"The Firm," with Tom Cruise, was a hit that year. But "Sabrina" (1995) and "Random Hearts" (1999), both with Harrison Ford, and "The Interpreter" (2005), with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, fell short, as Hollywood and its primary audience increasingly eschewed stars for fantasy and special effects.
Pollack never stopped acting; in a recent episode of "Entourage," the HBO series about Hollywood, he played himself.
Among Pollack's survivors are daughters, Rachel and Rebecca , and his wife, Claire Griswold, who was once among his acting students. The couple married in 1958, while Pollack was serving a two-year hitch in the army. Their only son, Steven, died at age 34 in a 1993 plane crash in Santa Monica, California.
In his later years, Pollack appeared to relish his role as elder statesman. At various times he was executive director of the Actors Studio West, chairman of American Cinematheque and an advocate for artists' rights.
He increasingly sounded wistful notes about the disappearance of the Hollywood he knew in his prime. "The middle ground is now gone," Pollack said in a discussion with Shimon Peres in the fall 1998 issue of New Perspectives Quarterly. He added, with a nod to a fellow filmmaker: "It is not impossible to make mainstream films which are really good. Costa-Gavras once said that accidents can happen."