Arthur Hiller, R.I.P.

Movie and TV Director Arthur Hiller has passed away of natural causes. He was 92.

Born to a Jewish family in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Hiller was reared on Yiddish theatre by his father who sold second-hand musical instruments. Hiller served with the Royal Canadian Air Force and participated in bombing raids in Nazi held territory. He wanted to volunteer for the Israeli War of Independence, but was turned down because he had just got married.

Hiller would work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation first in their radio division before moving over to television. Hollywood would come calling and during the 1950’s and early 1960’s, Hiller would direct multiple episodes of TV shows such as Playhouse 90, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Route 66, Ben Casey and I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster. He would also direct the pilot episode of The Addams Family.

By the mid-1960’s, Hiller would transition in directing film. He directed a couple of films with James Garner (The Wheeler Dealers and The Americanization of Emily co-starring Julie Andrews). This would be followed by Promise Her Anything with Warren Beatty and Leslie Caron, Penelope starring Natalie Wood and Peter Falk, the WWII film Tobruk starring Rock Hudson and George Peppard as well as The Tiger Makes Out and Popi starring Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson and Alan Arkin and Rita Moreno, respectively. The Tiger Makes Out also marked the film debut of Dustin Hoffman.

But it was the 1970’s when Hiller reached his critical and commercial success beginning with his adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Out-of-Towners starring Jack Lemmon & Sandy Dennis. But his biggest hit by far was Love Story starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw which garnered seven Academy Award nominations including Hiller’s lone Best Director nomination. (Earlier this year, O’Neal and MacGraw reunited on the stage with Love Letters which I wrote about here).

Hiller’s other ’70’s successes included The Hospital starring George C. Scott, Plaza Suite (another Neil Simon adaptation starring Walter Matthau, Lee Grant & Maureen Stapleton), The Man in The Glass Booth starring Maximilian Schell (earning him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor), Silver Streak (the first on-screen collaboration between Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor) and The In-Laws with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin.

Unfortunately, the 1980’s and 1990’s were not so kind to Hiller as he directed a string of poorly received films – Making Love, Author! Author! starring Al Pacino, Romantic Comedy, The Lonely Guy starring Steve Martin, Teachers starring Nick Nolte, Outrageous Fortune with Bette Midler and Shelley Long, See No Evil, Hear No Evil (another Wilder-Pryor collaboration), Taking Care of Business with Charles Grodin and Jim Belushi, The Babe starring John Goodman as Babe Ruth, Married to It & Carpool with Tom Arnold and David Paymer (which I had the misfortune of seeing on a bus trip on my way to my grandfather’s funeral). While Outrageous Fortune and See No Evil, Hear No Evil did well at the box office, the rest were panned by both moviegoers and critics alike.

The low point of his career came when he directed An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn starring Eric Idle. “Alan Smithee” used to be the name the Directors Guild of America would affix on a film when a director wanted his or her name removed from the credits. As it turns out An Alan Smithee Film was so bad that Hiller asked that his name be removed from the credits whereupon the DGA retired the name Alan Smithee. Ironically enough, Hiller served as President of the Directors Guild of America as well as The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The last film Hiller directed was National Lampoon’s Pucked starring Jon Bon Jovi. Released in 2006, needless to say that movie couldn’t live on a prayer.

Nevertheless, outside of Norman Jewison, Hiller is probably the most successful movie director to come from Canada. In 2007, Hiller was bestowed with Canada’s highest civilian honor, the Order of Canada.

Yet it could be said that Arthur Hiller’s greatest achievement was his 68 years of marriage to his childhood sweetheart Gwen Pechet who passed away in June. Undoubtedly, a life without his wife was a life not worth living.

In 2002, Hiller was bestowed by the Motion Picture Academy with Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his charitable and philanthropic efforts. Here is a video clip of that honor which was presented to him by his Love Story stars Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw. Hiller’s brief remarks are full of grace and humility.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJrPn-XUibY

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