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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

SYDNEY POLLACK - FILMMAKER (1934 - 2008)


LOS ANGELES: Sydney Pollack, a Hollywood mainstay as director, producer and sometime actor whose star-laden movies like "The Way We Were," "Tootsie" and "Out of Africa" were among the most successful of the 1970s and '80s, died on Monday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 73.

The cause was cancer, said a representative of the family.

Pollack's career defined an era in which big stars (Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Warren Beatty) and the filmmakers who knew how to wrangle them (Barry Levinson, Mike Nichols) retooled the Hollywood system. Savvy operators, they played studio against studio, staking their fortunes on pictures that served commerce without wholly abandoning art.

Hollywood honored Pollack in return. His movies received multiple Academy Award nominations, and as a director he won an Oscar for his work on the 1985 film "Out of Africa" as well as nominations for directing "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969) and "Tootsie" (1982).

Last fall, Warner Brothers released "Michael Clayton," of which Pollack was a producer and a member of the cast. He delivered a trademark performance as an old-bull lawyer who demands dark deeds from a subordinate, played by George Clooney. ("This is news? This case has reeked from Day One," snaps Pollack's Marty Bach.) The picture received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and a Best Actor nomination for Clooney.

Pollack became a prolific producer of independent films in the latter part of his career. With a partner, the filmmaker Anthony Minghella, he ran Mirage Enterprises, a production company whose films included Minghella's "Cold Mountain" and the documentary "Sketches of Frank Gehry," released last year, the last film directed by Pollack.

Apart from that film, Pollack never directed a movie without stars. His first feature, "The Slender Thread," released by Paramount Pictures in 1965, starred Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft. In his next 19 films — every one a romance or drama but for the single comedy, "Tootsie" — Pollack worked with Burt Lancaster, Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Nicole Kidman, Streisand and others.

Sydney Irwin Pollack was born on July 1, 1934, in Lafayette, Indiana, and reared in South Bend. By Pollack's own account, in the biographical dictionary "World Film Directors," his father, David, a pharmacist, and his mother, the former Rebecca Miller, were first-generation Russian-Americans who had met at Purdue University.

Pollack developed a love of drama at South Bend High School and, instead of going to college, went to New York and enrolled at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater. He studied there for two years under Sanford Meisner, who was in charge of its acting department, and remained for five more as Meisner's assistant, teaching acting but also appearing onstage and in television.

Curly-haired and almost 6 feet 2 inches tall, Pollack had a notable role in a 1959 "Playhouse 90" telecast of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," an adaptation of the Hemingway novel directed by John Frankenheimer. Earlier, Pollack had appeared on Broadway with Zero Mostel in "A Stone for Danny Fisher" and with Katharine Cornell and Tyrone Power in "The Dark Is Light Enough." But he said later that he probably could not have built a career as a leading man.

Instead, Pollack took the advice of Burt Lancaster, whom he had met while working with Frankenheimer, and turned to directing. Lancaster steered him to the entertainment mogul Lew Wasserman, and through him Pollack landed a directing assignment on the television series "Shotgun Slade."

After a faltering start, he hit his stride on episodes of "Ben Casey, "Naked City," "The Fugitive" and other well-known shows. In 1966 he won an Emmy for directing an episode of "Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater."

From the time he made his first full-length feature, "The Slender Thread," about a social work student coaxing a woman out of suicide on a telephone help line, Pollack had a hit-and-miss relationship with the critics. Writing in The New York Times, A. H. Weiler deplored that film's "sudsy waves of bathos." Pollack himself later pronounced it "dreadful."

But from the beginning of his movie career, he was also perceived as belonging to a generation whose work broke with the immediate past. In 1965, Charles Champlin, writing in The Los Angeles Times, compared Pollack to the director Elliot Silverstein, whose western spoof, "Cat Ballou," had been released earlier that year, and Stuart Rosenberg, soon to be famous for "Cool Hand Luke" (1967). Champlin cited all three as artists who had used television rather than B movies to learn their craft.

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