Sydney Pollack, the prolific director, producer and actor whose films tackled a variety of social issues while garnering critical acclaim and earning boffo numbers at the box office, died of cancer Monday afternoon at his home in Pacific Palisades. He was 73.
Pollack’s publicist Leslee Dart said he was surrounded by family.
Pollack continued to work after his cancer diagnosis, with several of his projects bowing recently or still to premiere.
He produced the Tony Gilroy-directed “Michael Clayton,” which was nominated for seven Academy Awards this year, including best picture, director and actor, winning for supporting actress Tilda Swinton. Pollack also appeared in the film.
Other recent acting credits included HBO’s “Entourage” and the Sony film “Made of Honor,” currently in theaters.
Pollack was an exec producer on HBO’s political docudrama about the 2000 presidential election, “Recount,” which premiered on the cabler on Sunday night; he had been set to direct the film but had to withdraw due to illness.
He also exec produced George Clooney’s “Leatherheads,” released in April.
“Sydney made the world a little better, movies a little better and even dinner a little better,” Clooney said. “A tip of the hat to a class act. He’ll be missed terribly.”
Pollack was a producer on Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader” and Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret,” both set for release later this year.
During the past two decades, Pollack gradually transitioned into the role of a producer. Through Mirage Enterprises, in which he was partnered with the late Anthony Minghella, he produced “The Fabulous Baker Boys” (1989), “Sense and Sensibility” (1995), “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999), “Iris” (2001) and “Cold Mountain” (2003). Minghella died March 18.
Pollack also occasionally took supporting roles in other directors’ films, such as Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives,” Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Changing Lanes.”
An Oscar winner himself for “Out of Africa,” Pollack led 12 actors to Oscar-nommed performances, including Jane Fonda, Dustin Hoffman, Holly Hunter, Jessica Lange, Paul Newman, Meryl Streep and Barbra Streisand. Collectively, his feature films have received 48 Oscar nominations.
On Sunday AMPAS prexy Sid Ganis said: “The loss of Sydney to film artists and filmgoers around the world is enormous. We’ll be sad — and then we’ll remember his everlasting work and we’ll cherish the totality of his skills as the complete artist.”
Pollack was a renowned liberal, and his films, such as “Out of Africa,” “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and “Tootsie,” strived to expose injustices and call attention to an array of public conflicts.
With the substantial budgets he commanded, Pollack often filled his widescreen canvases with vividly detailed period sets, vast on-location vistas and a cast of larger-than-life thesps.
Pollack was born in Lafayette, Ind. The oldest of three children, Pollack grew up in South Bend, Ind., a self-described “square.” His weekends were often spent at the local movie theater.
After high school, the 17-year-old left for New York City to pursue an acting career.
He landed at the Neighborhood Playhouse, where he trained under Sanford Meisner. After studying there for two years, Pollack became an instructor at the school and taught from 1954-60. He excelled at teaching, earning a favorable reputation from his students, who included Robert Duvall, Rip Torn and Brenda Vaccaro.
While teaching, Pollack also performed on the Gotham stage. In 1954, he co-starred with Zero Mostel in “A Stone for Danny Fisher,” based on Harold Robbins’ Depression-era novel. A year later, Pollack acted alongside Katharine Cornell and Tyrone Power in “The Dark Is Light Enough.”
Pollack’s time at the Neighborhood Playhouse was interrupted in 1957, when he joined the peacetime Army. In 1958, while still the service, he married Claire Griswold, a former acting student of his.
Pollack returned to New York in 1959 and continued teaching for another year. His performing career segued into television when John Frankenheimer directed him in an episode of “Playhouse 90.” Pollack went on to act in episodes of “Brenner,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Have Gun — Will Travel,” “The Deputy” and “Ben Casey.”
It was Frankenheimer who ushered Pollack into Hollywood moviemaking. Frankenheimer hired Pollack to be a dialogue coach for his 1961 pic “The Young Savages.” The director also arranged for Pollack’s first television directing gig, an episode of the Western “Shotgun Slade.”
Pollack’s directing career ignited, and from 1960-65 he helmed more than 80 TV episodes for shows including “Ben Casey,” “The Defenders,” “The Fugitive” and “Naked City.” Pollack won the 1966 Emmy for directing an episode of “Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre.”
In 1962, Pollack made his bigscreen acting debut in “War Hunt.” Also making his debut in that film was Robert Redford, who struck up what would become a lifelong friendship with Pollack.
Pollack’s feature film directorial debut came with 1965’s “The Slender Thread.” Based on a true story, the pic starred Anne Bancroft as a suicidal woman who seeks help by talking to a crisis helpline worker played by Sidney Poitier. The film faired poorly with the critics, who considered the script too self-conscious and overly dramatic.
Pollack’s second pic, “This Property Is Condemned,” based on Tennessee Williams’ play, reunited the director with Redford. Natalie Wood appeared as Redford’s love interest in the Mississippi-set romance.
“The Scalphunters,” a comedic oater with Burt Lancaster, was released two years later. “Castle Keep,” from 1969, also starred Lancaster, but the film’s production was set back by Yugoslavian blizzards and an accidental explosion that destroyed the main set.
During the same year, Pollack finally hit gold with “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” The Depression-era drama followed Jane Fonda’s character as she struggled through a marathon dance competition, and the movie scored big at the box office. The film received nine Oscar nominations, including a directing nom for Pollock.
During the 1970s, Pollack collaborated with Redford on four projects: “Jeremiah Johnson,” “The Way We Were,” “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Electric Horseman.” Each was a hit at the B.O., establishing Pollack as a competent and dependable filmmaker.
Pollack gained superstar director status with the 1982 comedy “Tootsie,” which starred Dustin Hoffman as a struggling actor who decides to dress as a woman in order to get a role on a soap opera. The picture grossed $177 million domestically, the second-highest total for that year (behind only “E.T.”). It captured 10 Oscar noms, including picture and director, and actress Jessica Lange won her first Oscar for her supporting turn.
Pollack also cast himself, against his better judgment, as Hoffman’s agent. “I don’t ever try to get in front of the camera,” Pollack told the Directors Guild of America’s DGA Monthly. “Hoffman insisted I play that role, to the point where he started sending me flowers, saying, ‘Please be my agent. Love, Dorothy.’ “
Three years later, Pollack hit the Oscar jackpot with “Out of Africa,” with Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen, who starts a coffee plantation in Kenya and falls for Redford, a local hunter.
The film won seven Oscars, with Pollack taking home the statues for picture and director.
Following that success, Pollack’s resume was a roller-coaster ride of hits and misses. “Havana,” again reuniting the director with Redford, was a massive flop; 1993’s “The Firm,” on the other hand, grossed $270 million worldwide and further cemented Tom Cruise’s international stardom.
“Sabrina,” a $58 million remake of Billy Wilder’s classic, was a rare Harrison Ford bomb. “Random Hearts,” also starring Ford, fared even worse. In 2005, political thriller “The Interpreter,” with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, represented a directing rebound and made a potent $163 million worldwide. The same year, Pollack directed documentary “Sketches of Frank Gehry.”
Pollack made headlines in 1997 when he took the stand as a witness in a case against a Danish television station that aired a pan-and-scan version of “Three Days of the Condor.”
Pollack and the Danish Directors Guild claimed that the cropping was a mutilation of the movie, and that the director had a “moral right” to have his artistic reputation protected from harm. Pollack ultimately lost, but he said the very existence of the case was a victory in the battle for filmmakers’ legal rights.
Pollack is survived by his wife and his two daughters, Rebecca and Rachel. Pollack’s son, Steven, died in a 1993 plane crash in Santa Monica.
Take a look back at the films of Sydney Pollack: