Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sydney Pollack R.I.P.

Director Sydney Pollack passed yesterday at the age of 73. The cause was cancer. Pollack was known for such films as They Shoot Horses, Don't They, The Way We Were, and Jeremiah Johnson, among others.

Sydney Pollack was born in Lafayette, Indiana on July 1, 1934. Pollack's family moved to South Bend, Indiana while he was still young. His parents divorced while he was still a child. His mother, an alcoholic died when he was 16. While his father had wanted Pollack to become a dentist, he left home after high school for New York City to become an actor. He studied with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. He later became Meisner's assistant.

As an actor Pollack had a small role on Broadway in the play The Dark Is Light Enough in 1955. He served in the Army from 1957 to 1959, then returned to acting. He appeared on such shows as Playhouse 90, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Have Gun Will Travel, and Ben Casey. Pollack also taught acting, working as a dialogue coach for director John Frankenheimer. It was while working with Burt Lancaster on Frankenheimer's film The Young Savages that Lancaster suggested to Pollack that he would make a good director. Lancaster introduced Pollack to Lew Wasserman, the chairman of MCA and then owner of Universal Pictures. Pollack then went into television directing, starting with shows produced by Universal. He made his directorial debut on Cain's Hundred in 1961.

For the next several years Pollack would direct episodes of The Defenders, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Ben Casey, The Fugitive, and Slattery's People. He won the Emmy award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Drama for "The Game," an episode of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre.

Sidney Pollack made his debut as a movie director with the film The Slender Thread in 1965. Over the next few years he would direct such films as This Property is Condemned and The Scalphunters. His breakthrough movie was They Shoot Horses, Don't They in 1969. He was nominated for the Oscar for Best Director for the film. Over the next three decades Pollack would direct several critically acclaimed films, including Jeremiah Johnson, Three Days of the Condor, The Way We Were, The Electric Horseman Tootsie (for which he was nominated for the Oscar for Best Director), Out of Africa (for which he won the Oscar for Best Director), and the 1995 remake of Sabrina.

Starting with The Electric Horsman, Pollack also returned to acting. He had roles in such films as The Player, Husbands and Wives, Eyes Wide Shut, and Michael Clayton. He also appeared in guest shots on television, in such shows as Fraiser, King of the Hill, and The Sopranos.

Arguably, Sydney Pollack was one of the most talented directors of our time. He was also one of that first generation of directors who started their directorial careers in television. Even in his work in television Pollack showed a talent for direction. His speciality seems to have been drawing great performances out of his actors, perhaps largely because he had started out as an actor himself. Oddly enough, it was sometimes Pollack's most critically acclaimed films that I did not feel were his best. Out of Africa may have won him an Oscar, but I think it was one of his worst films. It seems to me that Pollack's best films were often those that did not have accolades piled upon them, films such as This Property is Condemned, Three Days of the Condor, and Jeremiah Johnson. The performances in these films by the actors are nothing less than superb.

Of course, I think Pollack could have had a very good career as an actor had he not taken up direction. He was impressive in some of the parts he played on television, such as Bernie Samuelson in "The Contest for Aaron Gold," an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He was also impressive in some of the roles he played in films in later years, such as the sinister Victor Ziegler in Eyes Wide Shut and the much put upon Jack in Husbands and Wives. If he had never been a successful director, I think he could have been a very successful actor. Sydney Pollack was one of those rare men with talents in two fields--he was both a talented actor and a talented director.


d. chedwick said...

This was a shocker. He sure didn't seem like he was 73, --he was fab on the Sopranos-- and I loved him in Tootsie and in that Woody Allen film where he is Judy Davis's husband. He is (was) a great actor / director.

which twilight episode was he in???

Mercurie said...

He was in "The Trouble With Templeton." That's the Twilight Zone episode where an actor finds himself back in 1927.