Steven Hill, who starred for years as District Attorney Adam Schiff on “Law & Order” and decades earlier played the leader of the Impossible Missions Force before Peter Graves on TV’s “Mission: Impossible,” died Tuesday in Monsey, N.Y., his daughter Sarah Gobioff told The New York Times.
He was also a top character actor in films of the 1980s and early ’90s including “Rich and Famous,” “Yentl,” “Garbo Talks” and Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “Raw Deal”; “Legal Eagles,” in which he would, as in “Law & Order” a few years later, play the New York district attorney; “Heartburn”; “Brighton Beach Memoirs”; “Running on Empty”; “White Palace”; “Billy Bathgate”; and “The Firm.”
Hill played Schiff from the show’s first season in 1990 until 2000, when Hill resigned; within the show Schiff was said to have accepted a position coordinating commemorations of the Holocaust Project and goes on to work with Simon Wiesenthal. Replacing Schiff as D.A. was Dianne Wiest’s Nora Lewin.
The Schiff character was reportedly based in part on the former real-life, long-serving New York D.A., Robert Morgenthau. Schiff was formerly quite liberal in his youth, mostly replaced now with a political pragmatism that sees him fear angering one political constituency or another and thus frequently suggesting a plea bargain to appease all sides.
While Hill was often said to be the last remaining member of the original cast of “Law & Order” to leave the show, this was not quite true by a technicality, as another actor, Roy Thinnes, had played the D.A. in the very first episode of the series; Hill’s Schiff came on in episode two.
Hill was twice nominated for Emmys for playing Adam Schiff on “Law & Order,” in 1998 and 1999.
“Steven was not only one of the truly great actors of his generation, he was one of the most intelligent people I have ever met,” “Law & Order” creator and executive producer Dick Wolf said. “He is also the only actor I’ve known who consistently tried to cut his own lines. He will be missed but fortunately he can be seen ubiquitously on ‘Law & Order’ reruns.”
In a 1996 profile of the actor, the New York Times said: “Legal vagaries aside, Mr. Hill is a law-and-order man. ‘There’s a certain positive statement in this show,’ he says (of ‘Law & Order’). ‘So much is negative today. The positive must be stated to rescue us form pandemonium. To me it lies in that principle: law and order.’ Personally, Mr. Hill says, he is no plea bargainer. ‘But our stories are about real life, and that’s how life is today,’ he says. ‘We plea bargain all over the place.'”
On the first season of “Mission: Impossible” in 1966, Hill played Dan Briggs, who initially led the IMF force; while most viewers remember fondly the tape that plays at the onset of each episode and begins by saying “Good Morning Mr. Phelps” — the character later played by Peter Graves — and details the assignment that must be accomplished, the device was used from the beginning of the series, only the recording said, “Good morning, Mr. Briggs.”
Steven Hill was an Orthodox Jew whose faith required that he depart the set on Friday by 4 p.m. in order to ensure that he make it home by sundown and the onset of the Sabbath; he was unavailable until the end of the Sabbath at sundown on Saturdays. The producers of “Mission: Impossible” were fully aware of these requirements, which were explicitly spelled out in the actor’s contract, but the pause in the production schedule each week proved unworkable in practice, generating increasing resentment on both sides. Thus, as the first season progressed, the producers simply utilized Hill less and less. This conflict over religious observance was not the only source of tension. After the actor climbed through dirt tunnels and climbed rope ladders for the episode “Snowball in Hell,” Hill balked at performing similar duties in the next episode, and the producers shot around him. Briggs’ presence in the five remaining episodes of the season was kept to a minimum. Line producer Joseph Gantman later told Patrick J. White, author of the 1991 book “The Complete ‘Mission: Impossible’ Dossier,” that he simply had not understood what had been agreed to with regard to Hill’s religious requirements: “If someone understands your problems and says he understands them, you feel better about it. But if he doesn’t care about your problems, then you begin to really resent him. Steven Hill may have felt exactly the same way.”
Without any explanation within the storyline of the series, Hill’s Dan Briggs was replaced by Peter Graves’ Jim Phelps at the beginning of the second season.
Since Adam Schiff had only a couple of scenes in most episodes of “Law & Order,” hewing to Hill’s religious requirements did not pose much of a logistical problem in that series.
Nevertheless in the wake of the conflict that arose over his role on “Mission: Impossible,” Hill left acting from 1967 until 1978. He moved to a Jewish community in Rockland County, New York, writing and working in real estate.
In 1986, at a time when his career was revitalized, Hill told the New York Times: “I don’t think an actor should act every single day. I don’t think it’s good for the so-called creative process. You must have periods when you leave the land fallow, let it revitalize itself.” A decade later, in a profile in the Times, he painted a far less cheerful picture of his past: “‘What we have here is a story of profound instability and impermanence,’ he says of his own career.”
In 1978 he ended the 11-year drought with a role in NBC’s Martin Luther King Jr. miniseries “King,” in which Hill played Stanley Levison, a close friend of King’s who was a leader of the Communist Party.
He returned to features with supporting roles in Claudia Weill’s “It’s My Turn” (1980), starring Jill Clayburgh and Michael Douglas; Peter Yates’ “Eyewitness” (1981), starring William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Plummer and James Woods; George Cukor’s “Rich and Famous” (1981), starring Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen; Barbra Streisand’s “Yentl” (1983), in which he played the rabbi; Arthur Hiller’s “Teachers” (1984); “Garbo Talks,” in which he played the estranged husband of Anne Bancroft’s character; 1986 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “Raw Deal,” in which he played a Mafia boss for laughs; Ivan Reitman’s 1986 “Legal Eagles,” starring Robert Redford; Mike Nichols’ “Heartburn” (1986), in which he played the father-in-law of Meryl Streep’s character; and “Brighton Beach Memoirs” (also 1986).
In 1986 family drama “On Valentine’s Day,” written by Hill’s friend Horton Foote, the actor played “an anguished, deranged man living in a small town in Texas in the early years of the century,” in the words of the New York Times.
In Sidney Lumet’s “Running on Empty” (1988), Hill got lucky: — playing the father of a longtime fugitive portrayed by Christine Lahti, he was in the film’s key scene. Roger Ebert said: “Questioning the very foundations on which they have built their lives… leads to the movie’s emotional high point, when the Lahti character calls up her father (Steven Hill) and arranges to meet him for lunch. Long ago, she broke his heart. She disappeared from his life for years. Now she wants her parents to take Danny, so that he can go to music school. She will lose her son, just as her father lost her. It’s ironic, and it’s very sad, and by the end of the scene we have been through a wringer.”
In its review of 1990’s “White Palace,” starring Susan Sarandon and James Spader as unlikely lovers, the New York Times said: “Steven Hill, once again pressed into service to play an all-purpose patriarch, this time presides over a large Thanksgiving dinner in a prosperous household and makes a speech about the needs of the working class, which presents (Sarandon’s) Nora with her only opportunity for a memorable line. ‘Mister,’ she says, ‘I am the working class.’ “
In Robert Benton’s 1991 E.L. Doctorow adaptation “Billy Bathgate,” Hill memorably played a loyal henchman to Dustin Hoffman’s mobster Dutch Schultz, while in Sydney Pollack’s adaptation of John Grisham’s “The Firm,” he played FBI Director F. Denton Voyles.
Presumably supporting roles allowed both Hill and his respective directors the logistical freedom to work around his Sabbath schedule.
After a 1995 TV movie, Hill did not earn a screen credit for five years, until “Law & Order” came along.
Solomon Krakovsky was born in Seattle, Washington, to Russian Jewish immigrants, but was interested in theater even while young. He served in the Navy Reserve from 1940-44.
He was a founding member of Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, joining Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Julie Harris among the 50 successful applicants (out of some 700 interviewed) to be accepted, and made his Broadway debut in 1946 in the Ben Hecht play “A Flag Is Born,” which counted Marlon Brando among its stars and advocated for the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people in the ancient land of Israel; a few years later he was in the original cast of the enormously successful “Mister Roberts,” starring Henry Fonda, with Hill playing Stefanowski. Also in 1948 he appeared in “Sundown,” staged by Elia Kazan; in 1950 he appeared in Ibsen’s “The Lady From the Sea.” Hill was also in the original cast of Clifford Odets’ “The Country Girl.”
Hill started on television early in the history of the medium, appearing in several segments of the “Actors Studio” episodic anthology series in 1949. He soon appeared on other anthology series, such as “The Magnavox Theatre,” “Schlitz Playhouse,” “Lux Video Theatre,” “Goodyear Playhouse,” “Studio One in Hollywood” and “Playhouse 90.”
Hill received the Sylvania Television Award for dramatic actor of the year in 1954.
A bit later he appeared on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “The Untouchables” and “Dr. Kildare.”
The actor made his movie debut in the 1950 film noir “A Lady Without Passport,” starring Hedy Lamarr and John Hodiak, and appeared in film noir “Storm Fear,” directed by Cornel Wilde and written by Horton Foote; John Cromwell’s “The Actress” (1958), starring Kim Stanley; and “Kiss Her Goodbye” (1959) with Elaine Stritch.
In 1960 he starred in the CBS TV movie “Dillinger” as Melvin Purvis.
Everything changed with Hill’s 1961 starring role on Broadway as the older Sigmund Freud in the Henry Denker play “A Far Country.”
Appearing in the play — in which a patient screams at Freud, “You are a Jew!” — profoundly affected Hill. “In the pause that followed I would think, ‘What about this?’ I slowly became aware that there was something more profound going on in the world than just plays and movies and TV shows. I was provoked to explore my religion,” he told John Sobiski for the online essay “Steven Hill: Hollywood’s Most Talented Curmudgeon.”
A rabbi inspired him to adhere to strict Orthodox Judaism, which included observing the Sabbath without fail. This stricture effectively ended the actor’s stage career, as he would be unavailable for Friday night or Saturday matinee performances, and also made most potential film roles unlikely or impossible, most notably “The Sand Pebbles,” according to Sobiski.
There were some film roles in the years after Hill became observant, including John Cassavetes’ 1963 “A Child Is Waiting,” in which he starred with Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland and Gena Rowlands, and 1965’s Sydney Pollack-directed “The Slender Thread,” starring Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft.
Hill was twice married, the first time to Selma Stern, to whom he was married from 1951 until their divorce in 1964.
He is survived by his second wife, Rachel, whom he married in 1967; five children by her; and four by Stern.
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