George Roy Hill
Having emerged from the theater world as an actor and director, George Roy Hill made a smooth transition to motion pictures by directing both Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the actors' most recognizable roles. Hill garnered a decent amount of acclaim and success before directing the pair in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969), a revisionist Western that became a smash hit while establishing the then-unknown Redford as a bona fide star. The director reunited with the two actors for the Oscar-winning caper comedy, "The Sting" (1973), which lived on as Hill's finest achievement. Hill moved on to work with both Redford and Newman on separate films; the former starred in his grand barnstorming adventure, "The Great Waldo Pepper" (1975), while the latter starred in his dark sports comedy "Slap Shot" (1977), neither of which became big box office hits, but nonetheless remained in high regard by critics and audiences. Following the minor success "A Little Romance" (1979), Hill divided critics with "The World According to Garp" (1982), which seemed to garner a more enthusiastic response from audiences. He delivered two rather forgettable films after "Garp" before unofficially retiring from Hollywood and returning to academia. Despite his rather sudden abandonment of filmmaking, Hill nonetheless remained one of the giant directing talents who contributed to Hollywood's second Golden Age of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Born on Dec. 20, 1922 in Minneapolis, MN, Hill was raised by his father, George Roy Hill, Sr., a businessman and secretary of the American Automobile Association, and his mother, Helen, whose uncle owned the Minneapolis Tribune. Hill developed passionate interests in both classical music and aviation; the latter being sparked by his boyhood fascination with the barnstorming pilots of his youth. When he was 17, Hill obtained his pilot's license after hanging around a local airport, while developing a taste for acting at Blake High School. With his finely tuned baritone voice, he studied music at Yale University, earning his bachelor's in 1943, after which he joined the U.S. Marines and served as a transport pilot in the South Pacific during World War II. Following a brief stint as a novice reporter for one of the family's Texas-based newspapers, Hill used the G.I. Bill to study music and literature at Trinity College in Dublin, where he made his stage debut in a production of George Bernard Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple" (1948) with Cyril Cusack's company at the Abbey Theatre. He followed with a tour across the U.S. with Margaret Webster's Shakespeare Repertory Company before appearing in a Broadway production of "Richard II."
Hill scored a significant personal success playing Gustave in August Strindberg's "The Creditors" (1950) at the Cherry Lane Theatre, before returning to the military as a fighter pilot during the Korean War, which interrupted his regular job on the radio soap opera "John's Other Wife." After his second tour of war duty, from which he emerged with the rank of major, Hill moved away from acting to focus his creative energies on writing and directing television. He scripted and acted in his first work for NBC's "Kraft Television Theatre," the autobiographical "My Brother's Keeper" (1953), which was inspired by his experience as a pilot being talked down by a ground controller. He earned Emmy nominations as both writer and director of "A Night to Remember" (1956), also for "Kraft Television Theatre," a drama about the sinking of the Titanic. Hill next scored a huge success in his Broadway directing debut, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Look Homeward, Angel" (1957), before making his feature film debut helming the adaptation of the Tennessee Williams' play "Period of Adjustment" (1962), which he had directed on Broadway. Starring Jim Hutton and Jane Fonda, the film exhibited good performances from its cast, though the overall dramatics were rather tame as compared to other of the playwright's works.
Hill delighted reviewers with his next motion picture, "The World of Henry Orient" (1964), which starred Peter Sellers as a philandering concert pianist who seduces the mother (Angela Lansbury) of two adoring teenage fans. Following his first stab at shepherding a big-budget project with the critical and commercial failure "Hawaii" (1966), his fortunes changed with his first and only musical, "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (1967), a Roaring Twenties spoof which made a good deal of money. That set the stage for the first of his greatest triumphs starring the superstar team of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969). The revisionist Western starred Newman as the witty and charismatic outlaw Butch Cassidy and Redford as his bickering, but loyal partner. Though ultimately a tragic tale in the end, audiences were fully engaged with the snappy one-liners and chemistry between Newman and the then-unknown Redford. Featuring iconic scenes like Butch riding a bicycle with Etta Place (Katharine Ross) to the tune of "Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head," and Butch and Sundance making a daring jump off a cliff into churning rapids, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" helped revitalize an aging genre while earning seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture.
Hill followed that critical and box office smash with his adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's acclaimed "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1972), managing to keep audiences oriented within the story despite its central character, Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks), existing in a constant state of disorientation as he struggles with being a POW during World War II. He reunited with Newman and Redford for his most successful film, "The Sting" (1973), which starred the actors as two con men looking to set up a sting on a Mob boss (Robert Shaw) who killed a mutual friend. A huge box office hit that was simultaneously hailed by critics, "The Sting" secured a whopping 10 Oscar nominations and won seven, including statues for Best Picture and Best Director. For his next picture, Hill teamed with only Redford on "The Great Waldo Pepper" (1975), a hymn to the great aerial stuntman of his boyhood. Despite exhilarating aerial sequences and a fine performance from his star, Hill's third straight period film failed to live up to the box office precedent set by "Butch Cassidy" and "The Sting." Hill next collaborated with only Newman for "Slap Shot" (1977), a sports comedy about a low-rent hockey team that resorts to thuggish violence in order to win. Vulgar and full of coarse language, "Slap Shot" developed a strong cult following over the years and become regarded as one of the finest comedies ever made.
With "A Little Romance" (1979), a minor success widely praised by critics, Hill returned to the territory of adolescent infatuation - which he had previously explored in "The World of Henry Orient" - in telling the tale of two 13-year-olds in love (Diane Lane and Thelonius Bernard). He shocked Hollywood by leaving the industry to teach a drama class at his alma mater Yale, only to come back for "The World According to Garp" (1982), which was adapted from John Irving's novel of the same name. A mixture of both comedy and drama, "Garp" focused on the titular main character (Robin Williams), a struggling writer navigating life's ups and downs while contending with his far more successful and eccentric mother (Glenn Close in her film debut), who surrounds herself with a cadre of feminists that includes a former NFL star-turned-transsexual (John Lithgow). Hill made a cameo appearance as a pilot who crashes into a Garp's soon-to-be new house. Though unable to capture the full extent of Irving's literary imagination, the film did feature exemplary performances from its cast. Meanwhile, Hill wound down his sterling film career with the unsuccessful thriller, "The Little Drummer Girl" (1984), and the underwhelming Chevy Chase comedy, "Funny Farm" (1988), before returning to academia, where he spent the remainder of his time. Hill later died in his New York home on Dec. 27, 2002 of complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 81.