HOLLYWOOD — The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, first initiated in 1956, has not been presented to anyone since 1994. It took a person with Arthur Hiller’s social conscience and compassion to stimulate the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences into bestowing this prestigious honor again, and on March 24, the director will be a recipient for his generosity, keen awareness of his fellow man and courage to stand up and support causes he believes in.
An Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner for directing “Love Story,” Hiller’s filmography sparkles with light comedy (“The Out of Towners,” “Author Author” “Silver Streak”), but his most cutting-edge pictures reflect lifelong social activism and make powerful statements about society. “The Americanization of Emily” as he puts it, “is anti the glorification of war. Hey, sometimes you’ve got to go to war, but don’t glorify it.”
“Hospital” is a bitterly truthful comedy drama about medical incompetence; “Making Love” a plea for understanding of gay life and relationships.
The veteran director, who was also AMPAS prexy 1993-97, is modest about his achievements, and deeply grateful to the background that formed him.
“I enjoy helping,” Hiller says. “It’s necessary. If you don’t keep working toward goals, things don’t change. I learned this from my parents. They stressed caring, treating each person as an individual.”
Hiller’s far-reaching attitude was applauded in 1998 when the Directors Guild of America validated him with the Robert B. Aldrich award for “extraordinary service to the DGA and its membership.”
Born in Edmonton, Alberta in 1923, he originally considered being an actor.
“I thought of acting — and I thought of announcing — but I always loved theater. My parents had a Yiddish theater in Edmondton, in 1929. When I was 7 or 7, I built and painted sets. At 11, I was acting with a long beard. I loved it. And I had a drama teacher in high school who chose plays with good moral values. She taught those values, the same ones my parents had instilled in me.”
After joining the Canadian Air Force and facing combat in Europe, Hiller returned and took his arts degree at the University of Toronto. He studied law for a year before realizing that his heart was in the creative arts.
“Talk about luck,” he recalls. “I walked into the headquarters of the Canadian Broadcasting Co., in radio days, went to the front desk and said, ‘I want to be a director.’ It just came out — I have no idea why — and this led to a job as director of public affairs. I had to pick a topic and get a person on each side of the topic. Everything centered on social issues or civic problems.”
This unexpected specialty set the tone for Hiller’s dedication to important causes, a dedication that has benefited such organizations as the Motion Picture and Television Fund, L.A. PBS station KCET, Amnesty Intl., Deaf Arts Council, the Anti-Defamation League, Humanitas and the Venice Family Clinic.
The Motion Picture and Television Fund was created by Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin, entertainers who recognized — as Hiller does — how urgent it is to aid those facing difficult times. Former president Jean Hersholt found the property for the future Motion Picture Television Country House and Hospital in 1940.
“There are many people who reach a point where, for whatever reason — illness or not — they can’t look after themselves,” says Hiller. “Over the years, I gave a percentage of what I earned. I’m not the driving force behind any one project. I’m involved in a heck of a lot of them, and I fight to keep them working.”
KCET has also benefited from Hiller’s participation as host and fundraiser. “I’ve helped them with their programs, as well as donating annually.”
He feels strongly about his work with Amnesty Intl., an organization that has over a million members in over 150 countries and opposes human rights abuses.
“What they do is so vital. I remember we got together at Amnesty — Hector Elizondo, Jeff Greenblum — and phoned Chile, at a time when they seemed to be going after the creative community. Our Amnesty representative got on the phone, reached this woman and started talking to her. We actually heard them breaking into the line, making rude comments, and the conversation was cut off. We were aware then — and we’re even more aware now — of the mistreatment of people in so many countries, so that they have no dignity, no respect.”
Inner City Filmmakers is another outlet for Hiller’s creative support.
“I do workshops with them,” he says. Developed in 1992 by film editor Fred Heinrich and producer Stephania Lipner, this enterprise furnishes free year-round professional and business skills training for inner-city youth and places them at film studios and production companies.
Hiller’s history is marked by resistance to all forms of bigotry.
“I’m on the board of the Anti-Defamation League,” he says. “There’s still too much discrimination — and in 1956 it was worse. I was working on ‘Matinee Theatre,’ live TV, and did a father and son story. Both were doctors, and the son had a friend who was a physician too. I cast a black actor, Otis Young. On a ‘Perry Mason’ the next year, there was a husband, wife and daughter, and I cast a black actor as the father, and a white woman and child. It worked. Some of
the sponsors were upset. But sponsors were upset, but NBC wasn’t.”
Maintaining the same, intense focus, Hiller devotes himself to Humanitas, which honors scripts that affirm human dignity and examine the meaning of love, liberation and freedom. Past winners include “Schindler’s List” and “The Shawshank Redemption.”
“Father Kieser came up with the idea,” Hiller remembers, “but I was one of the group that organized it with him. I’ve continued on the board for 30 years. We had to raise money and it took quite a bit of doing.”
Hiller has also been on the board of the Venice Family Clinic, which extends free health care to poor Los Angeles families.
He feels the creative community has done itself proud working for the public good. “There was a time people were afraid,” he admits, “and they’d only do international causes. Now I see so many of them working at home too — concentrating on various domestic issues.”
He cites Gregory Peck as the person he admires most, “an amazing human being, always out there doing things. So principled and caring.”
Along with philanthropic commitments, Hiller still finds time to direct.
“I’m well into ‘Puss and Boots'” he says. “Gerard Depardieu and Judi Dench are ready to go. We’ve raised 20 of the 30 million. It won’t be animated, but there will be a degree of puppet work with the cat. The cat will be partly real, partly CGI.”
He also looks forward to continuing his charitable and educational activities, even though his wife of 54 years worries he might be taking on too much.
“It adds up to this,” says Hiller. “In the late ’70s, my wife and I went to the Soviet Union, and we visited with Refuseniks — people who applied to get out and couldn’t. We smuggled in books, clothing, stuff like that. When we came back, I realized what trouble we could have been in. At the time you do it,” he concludes, as if no other alternative is remotely possible. “You do it because it just has to be done.”