On this day in 2008, the film director, producer and actor Sidney Pollack, whose string of hits included Tootsie, Out of Africa and The Firm, dies of cancer at his home in Los Angeles, at the age of 73.
After high school, Pollack left his hometown of South Bend, Indiana, to study at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater. He acted in a Playhouse telecast of For Whom the Bell Tolls, directed by John Frankenheimer, and appeared on Broadway in several productions. According to Pollack’s obituary in the New York Times, it was Burt Lancaster who pointed the young actor toward directing, introducing him to the Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman, who got Pollack a gig on the television series Shotgun Slade. Pollack later directed episodes of Ben Casey and The Fugitive for TV and won an Emmy Award for helming a Bob Hope-hosted show in 1966.
Pollack’s first feature film, The Slender Thread, starred Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft and was released in 1965. Critical reception was cool, and only rose to lukewarm for his next several efforts. He broke through in 1969 with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, starring Jane Fonda. The bleak Great Depression-era film received nine Oscar nominations, including one for Pollack as Best Director. Four years later, he scored a commercial hit with The Way We Were, a weepy romance starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford that was largely panned by critics. One of Pollack’s most frequent collaborators, Redford also starred (opposite Faye Dunaway) in Pollack’s hit 1975 thriller Three Days of the Condor and (opposite Fonda) his screwball 1979 comedy The Electric Horseman.
After a foray into serious drama with Absence of Malice (1981), Pollack returned with a comedic bang in the following year’s acclaimed hit Tootsie, for which he earned a second Oscar nomination for Best Director. The film was the second-highest grossing film of 1982, behind only E.T., directed by Steven Spielberg. Pollack finally took home the Best Director trophy for the romantic drama Out of Africa (1985), starring Meryl Streep and Redford. The film also won the Oscar for Best Picture. The Redford vehicle Havana (1990) flopped, but Pollack soon bounced back with the hugely successful legal thriller The Firm (1993), based on the best-selling John Grisham novel.
After two disappointments–Sabrina (1995) and Random Hearts (1999), both starring Harrison Ford–Pollack took a five-year hiatus from directing, returning with the drama The Interpreter (2005), starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. During the latter part of his career, Pollack amassed an impressive roster of independent films as a producer. In 2000, he partnered with the director Anthony Minghella (who also died in 2008) to form Mirage Enterprises. The company released Minghella’s acclaimed Cold Mountain (2005) and Pollack’s last film as a director, the documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry, in 2006.
Throughout his career, Pollack maintained a reputation for working particularly well with big-name actors, including Redford, Fonda, Streisand, Streep, Ford, Sally Field, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. He racked up a number of notable performances himself, including a starring turn in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1992). Pollack appeared in his own movies numerous times, playing Hoffman’s agent in Tootsie and Penn’s boss in The Interpreter, among other roles. On the small screen, he had a recurring role on the sitcom Will & Grace and appeared on Just Shoot Me, Mad About You, The Sopranos and Entourage. Most recently, he was featured in 2007’s Michael Clayton (which he also produced) as a jaded corporate lawyer, and in the 2008 comedy Made of Honor.