Sydney Pollack dies of cancer at 73

May 27, 2008 5:36:54 PM PDT
Sydney Pollack found mainstream success with smart films for grown-ups - a rarity today.

In thrillers, romances and comedies, his movies were intelligent and often dealt with social issues. They call such movies "independent" nowadays; Pollack could craft them into hits.

"The middle ground is now gone," he told New Perspectives Quarterly in 1998. "It is not impossible to make mainstream films which are really good. Costa-Gavras once said that accidents can happen."

Movies today tend to come as either blockbusters aimed at the younger demographics or smaller, stylized art-house works - which typically fail to make money. Pollack did neither.

Pollack, diagnosed with cancer about nine months ago, died Monday afternoon, surrounded by family, at his home in Los Angeles, said publicist Leslee Dart. He was 73.

In a tireless career spanning nearly five decades, Pollack distinguished himself as a true professional: a director, a producer and an actor. His greatest successes as a director - 1982's "Tootsie" and 1985's "Out of Africa" - came years ago, but he showed no signs of slowing down.

He was executive producer of the new HBO film "Recount" about the 2000 presidential election, and he produced two high-profile films not yet in theaters: Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret" and Stephen Daldry's "The Reader."

On Tuesday, Hollywood mourned the loss of the well-liked, prolific filmmaker. He had worked with seemingly every A-list star in the business, from Robert Mitchum to Al Pacino. But Pollack collaborated with Robert Redford more than any other - seven films, including "Out of Africa," 1973's "The Way We Were," 1975's "Three Days of the Condor" and 1979's "The Electric Horseman."

"Sydney's and my relationship both professionally and personally covers 40 years," Redford said. "It's too personal to express in a sound bite."

Barbra Streisand, who starred alongside Redford in "The Way We Were," said: "He knew how to tell a love story. He was a great actor's director because he was a great actor."

Tom Cruise, whom Pollack directed in 1993's "The Firm" and with whom Pollack memorably acted in Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999), said: "Throughout the years, unpretentious and never condescending, he shared with me what he loved about family, storytelling, food, flying and a great bottle of vino. He was a Renaissance man and a great friend."

"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" - the 1969 film about Depression-era marathon dancers - received nine Oscar nominations, including one for Pollack's direction. He was nominated again for best director for 1982's "Tootsie," starring Dustin Hoffman as a cross-dressing actor and Pollack as the exasperated agent who tells him: "I begged you to get some therapy."

As director and producer, he won Academy Awards for the romantic epic "Out of Africa," which captured seven Oscars in all.

Last fall, Pollack played law firm boss Marty Bach opposite George Clooney in "Michael Clayton," which he also co-produced. It received seven Oscar nominations.

"Sydney made the world a little better, movies a little better and even dinner a little better," Clooney said. "He'll be missed terribly."

Clooney's admiration for Pollack is evident in the similar way he has traded on star power to make compelling, complex, realistic dramas with a political sensibility. But unlike, say, Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck," Pollack's films did big business, no doubt largely aided by their considerable star wattage.

"Tootsie" made $177 million. "Absence of Malice," a 1981 film that today would be relegated to a studio's specialty division, more than tripled its $12 million budget. The film, starring Paul Newman and Sally Field, remains a remarkably relevant movie about the press 27 years after its release.

"Sydney was a very special person, but the thing that impressed me was that he was special enough so that he didn't have to think that he was," Newman said Tuesday.

Pollack moved gracefully between in front of the camera and behind it. He became an elite producer, helping bring to theaters well-crafted (but not snooty) films, among them 1995's "Sense and Sensibility," 2002's "The Quiet American" and 2005's "The Interpreter," which he also directed.

He teamed with the late Anthony Minghella on the production company Mirage Enterprises, and produced most of Minghella's films, including "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Cold Mountain." The company also released Pollack's last film, the 2006 documentary "Sketches of Frank Gehry."

"He was elegant, a gentleman, smart and generous, a wonderful actor, a great cook - a true connoisseur of life," said Nicole Kidman, who starred in "The Interpreter. "He guided me artistically and personally, not just as a director or producer but as a mentor and friend."

The film was the first shot at U.N. headquarters; by then, Pollack was an unofficial ambassador of movies. He often appeared in documentaries about filmmakers; he participated in American Film Institute television specials; and he spoke artfully about classic cinema while hosting series such as Turner Classic Movies' "The Essentials."

Sidney Irwin Pollack was born in Lafayette, Ind., to first-generation Russian-Americans. In high school in South Bend, he fell in love with theater, a passion that prompted him to forgo college, move to New York and enroll in the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater.

Studying under Sanford Meisner, Pollack spent several years cutting his teeth in various areas of theater, eventually becoming Meisner's assistant.

"We started together in New York and he always excelled at everything he set out to do, his friendships and his humanity as much as his talents," said Martin Landau, a longtime close friend and associate in the Actors Studio.

Though Pollack would make his name as a director and producer, his first love was acting. It wasn't until later in his career that the parts came easily: a notable role in "The Sopranos," a role in Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives," appearances on TV shows "Will & Grace," "Frasier" and "Entourage."

His last screen appearance was in "Made of Honor," a romantic comedy still in theaters, where he played the oft-married father of star Patrick Dempsey's character.

"Since I don't pursue an acting career, I (now) have the luxury of getting more offers than when I was pursuing an acting career," Pollack told The Associated Press last year, laughing. "It's the irony of life. When I was a young kid and wanted to be an actor, I couldn't get arrested."

After appearing in a handful of Broadway productions in the 1950s, Burt Lancaster urged Pollack to try directing and introduced him to MCA Chairman Lew Wasserman. His first full-length feature was 1965's "The Slender Thread," about a suicide help line.

The film was scored by Quincy Jones. "Sydney Pollack's immense talents as a director were only surpassed by the compassion that he carried in his soul for his fellow man," Jones said Monday.

Pollack first met Redford when they acted in 1962's low-budget "War Hunt," and would go on to play a major role in making Redford a star. "It's easy working with Bob; I don't have to be diplomatic with him," Pollack once told the AP. "I know what he can and cannot do; I know all the colors he has. I've always felt he was a character actor in the body of a leading man."

Pollack said in 2005 that for "Tootsie," Hoffman pushed him into playing the agent role, repeatedly sending him roses with a note reading, "Please be my agent. Love, Dorothy." At that point, Pollack hadn't acted in a movie in 20 years - since "The War Hunt" with Redford.

The love soon frayed as Pollack and Hoffman differed over whether the film should lean toward comedy or drama, and the tension spilled out publicly. But the result was a hit at the box office and received 10 Oscar nominations, with Jessica Lange winning for best supporting actress.

"Stars are like thoroughbreds," Pollack once told The New York Times. "Yes, it's a little more dangerous with them. They are more temperamental. You have to be careful because you can be thrown. But when they do what they do best - whatever it is that's made them a star - it's really exciting."

He added: "If you have a career like mine, which is so identified with Hollywood, with big studios and stars, you wonder if maybe you shouldn't go off and do what the world thinks of as more personal films with lesser-known people. But I think I've fooled everybody. I've made personal films all along. I just made them in another form."

Pollack is survived by his wife, Claire; two daughters, Rebecca and Rachel; his brother Bernie; and six grandchildren. Pollack's son, Steven, died in a plane crash in 1993.