Oscar-winning helmer of 'Sundance,' 'Sting'

This article was updated on Dec. 29, 2002.

Oscar winner George Roy Hill, who became one of Hollywood’s top directors by blending adventure and comedy in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting,” died Friday of complications from Parkinson’s disease at his home in Manhattan. He was 81.

“He was by far the greatest director I’ve ever known,” said screenwriter William Goldman, who worked with Hill on “Butch Cassidy” and “The Great Waldo Pepper.” “George was a remarkable figure — very smart, great with a script and wonderful with actors.”

Hill rose to prominence for directing Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy,” his revisionist 1969 Western hit which gave him his first Oscar nomination, and reteaming the superstar duo as conmen in 1973’s “The Sting,” which won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and score, along with the DGA Award. He also reaped millions of dollars through profit participation in both films.

“He was the best friend that anyone could have: friend, mentor, enemy,” Newman said Friday. “He gave everyone a hell of a ride. Himself included.'”

A versatile talent

Though retired from filmmaking for well over a decade, Hill remained highly regarded in Hollywood for his versatility, commercial success and his knack for tackling complex stories.

After succeeding as an actor and a director of television and Broadway plays, Hill began his work as a film director at the age of 40 with 1962’s “A Period of Adjustment.” His other films include “Hawaii,” “The World of Henry Orient,” “The World According to Garp,” “Slaughterhouse Five,” “Slap Shot,” “The Little Drummer Girl,” “A Little Romance,” “Funny Farm,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Toys in the Attic.”

“His ability to communicate the sense of what he wanted to do was unique,” said Edwin S. Brown, Hill’s business manager for 35 years. “He took all of the world seriously except himself.”

Despite his stature as one of Hollywood’s leading directors, Hill never sought fame and almost never gave interviews. “He was very circumspect,” Goldman added. “George was not into hype at all.”

Goldman recalled that Hill would begin each day before dawn by listening to music by Bach for an hour and it was only at that point that he was willing to meet with studio executives, who tended to regard him warily.

“The DGA is greatly saddened by the passing of George Roy Hill,” Guild prexy Martha Coolidge said. “Audiences loved the light touch he brought to his films throughout his career, from musicals to Westerns to thrillers to comedies. He was a great storyteller with a special ability to bring the best out of his actors. The film world will miss him dearly, and the DGA will miss the dedicated service he brought to both our East Coast members and to the Guild as a whole.”

Hill was born in Minneapolis into a well-off newspaper family. He haunted the Cedar Airport outside Minneapolis, watching and listening to the barnstorming aviators, many of them veterans of World War I. At 16 he became a full-fledged pilot.

Hill studied music at Yale U., partly under the famed composer Paul Hindemith. He went on to study at Trinity College in Dublin on the G.I. Bill after serving two years as a Marine fighter pilot in the South Pacific during WWII.

While attending Trinity College, he joined Cyril Cusack’s company as an actor and performed in Irish theaters, including the famous Abbey. He returned to America, toured as an actor with Margaret Webster’s Shakespeare Repertory Co., and married the company’s star, Louisa Horton.

He continued as an actor, performing in the nine-month run of “The Creditors” at Off Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theater. When the Korean War erupted in August 1950, Hill was once again called upon to serve in the Marines as a night-fighter pilot, attaining the rank of major.

TV and stage roots

During this time, he wrote a TV script about air warfare in Korea called “My Brother’s Keeper” that he sold to NBC’s “Kraft Television Theater” in 1953. The autobiographical work related his experience as a pilot being talked down by a ground controller.

In 1956 he was Emmy-nominated as director and co-author of “A Night to Remember,” a drama about the sinking of the Titanic that was also broadcast on NBC’s “Kraft Television Theater.” Other TV assignments included “The Helen Morgan Story,” “Child of Our Time,” “Blast in Centralia No. 5″ and Playhouse 90’s “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

In 1957, Hill made his Broadway directorial bow with the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Look Homeward, Angel,” starring Anthony Perkins. He also directed the plays “The Gang’s All Here,” “Greenwillow” and the Off Broadway “Moon on a Rainbow Shawl” and “Period of Adjustment.”

Hill shifted into feature films with “Period of Adjustment,” which gave Jane Fonda one of her first big roles and established Hill as a top director. He then helmed the critically acclaimed (although commercially unsuccessful) “The World of Henry Orient,” Peter Sellers’ American debut, along with the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and the sprawling “Hawaii” before scoring a massive hit with “Butch Cassidy,” which received a best picture Oscar nomination and won him the British Film Academy Award for direction.

A few film critics (including the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael) weren’t as enamored of “Sundance” and “The Sting” as were the ticket buyers. Hill stated in a 1979 interview that had “Sundance” been a play, it would have closed after one day; “word of mouth is what saved us on that one.”

“Slaughterhouse Five” (1972) won a special jury prize at Cannes but didn’t do well at the box office. Hill reteamed with Redford in 1975’s “The Great Waldo Pepper” and with Newman in “Slap Shot” (1977).

Return to Hollywood

During the next decade Hill would direct only four films, including “A Little Romance” in 1979. Following “Romance” he left Hollywood for several years to teach a course at Yale.

He returned to Hollywood in 1982 and helmed “The World According to Garp,” which featured high-powered performances by Robin Williams, John Lithgow and Glenn Close (her film debut), the latter two earning Oscar noms for their work.

His final two films were “The Little Drummer Girl” (1984) and “Funny Farm” (1988) before retiring to academia.

Hill served on the DGA national board from 1989 to 1991. In addition to winning the DGA Award for “The Sting,” he also received DGA noms for “Butch Cassidy” and “Slaughterhouse Five.”

Hill is survived by two sons, two daughters and 12 grandchildren.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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