An auteur in every sense of the word, director Walter Hill took the baton passed him by Sam Peckinpah and became a specialist in the archetypal male action movie, reveling in the artifice of the genre, while at the same time, straining against its constraints. Strongly influenced by John Ford and Howard Hawks - he once claimed every film he had ever made was a Western - he allowed action to define character, believing "there is nothing more absurd than properly motivated characters," and concentrated on creating stunning visual spectacle through experiments in lighting, montage, composition and camera angles. For Hill, violence in varying degrees of stylization provided the stamp of macho gesture; women were extensions of the male world, exhibiting testosterone toughness and masculine meanness; and "home" illuminated a path for those who had lost their way. His pictures reflected a fascination with myth-making and myth-breaking and, at their best, transcended genre conventions.
Born Jan. 10, 1940 in Long Beach, CA, Hill came out of the Directors Guild of America training school and served as 2nd assistant director on two 1968 movies starring Steve McQueen - Norman Jewison's "The Thomas Crown Affair" and Peter Yates' "Bullitt" - as well as for Woody Allen's "Take the Money and Run" (1969), but finally acquired the clout to direct through screenwriting. His first produced screenplay, "Hickey and Boggs" (1972), became a "salt and pepper" buddy pic for "I Spy" co-stars Robert Culp (who also directed) and Bill Cosby. He also scripted (from a Jim Thompson novel) that year's "The Getaway," Peckinpah's exciting chase vehicle for McQueen, which elevated his stock considerably within the industry. When producer Lawrence Gordon enlisted him as a script doctor for "Hard Times" (1975), Hill accepted the assignment only on the condition that he also direct the film. A fairly traditional picture in terms of its approach to character development, "Hard Times" was violent and visceral pulp, casting Charles Bronson as the strong, silent loner, fighting bare-knuckled against the director's painterly Depression-era backdrop.
The critical and commercial success of "Hard Times" led Gordon to produce Hill's "The Driver" (1978) from the director's original script. A homage to film noir that further developed the chase scene iconography from "The Getaway," its failure at American box offices left him still in pursuit of the smash hit needed to win more autonomy within the industry. His next film, "The Warriors" (1979), however, was an overwhelming success, adapted from Sol Yurick's novel - itself based on Xenophon's account in Anabasis of how he led 10,000 Greek soldiers through Persia to safety after the battle of Cunaxa in 401 BC. Hill's "Warriors" were teenage gang members who must fight their way through hostile turf from Coney Island to their "home" in the Bronx. Hill himself identified the movie as a "comic book, rock-n-roll version of the Xenophon story," and the film's departure from realism actually mitigated the excessive violence, although it acquired a certain notoriety for sparking "imitative rampages" at theaters across the country.
After working on the script, casting and post-production of Ridley Scott's "Alien" (1979) - his first foray into producing - Hill directed "The Long Riders" (1980), his version of the Frank and Jesse James legend, which contained in the words of one critic, "the most ambitious slow-motion shoot-out since Peckinpah's 'Wild Bunch'." Moderately successful at the box office, it found fewer champions than any of his films up until that time, but it did team him for the first time with the musician Ry Cooder. Hill had learned from Ford the necessity for putting the best songs and musical numbers into his pictures, leading to the success of "The Warriors" soundtrack which had contributed mightily to its success. In Cooder, Hill found someone whose music meshed with his own sensibilities, and the two would work together on 11 movies through 1996. Though "Southern Comfort" (1981) met with more critical favor than its predecessor, audiences stayed away from what was essentially a retelling of "The Warriors;" this time the "lost patrol" was a National Guard unit fighting its way out of hostile Cajun country in a picture that drew many comparisons to John Boorman's "Deliverance" (1972).
Hill returned to the "buddy movie" formula and enjoyed his biggest commercial success with "48 Hours" (1982), which paired detective Nick Nolte with Eddie Murphy (in his feature debut) as the con he must liberate for two days to help him solve his case. Closer than any of Hill's prior pictures to straightforward genre fare, it was a potent mix of action and comedy, featuring a standout scene where Murphy, using his theatrical chutzpah (and Nolte's badge), terrorizes a redneck bar. "Streets of Fire" (1984), described by its director as "an Arthurian story in the rock 'n' roll idiom," featured an energetic score by Cooder and stunning photography but failed with critics and audiences alike, prefacing a long string of movies - "Brewster's Millions" (1985), "Crossroads" (1986), "Extreme Prejudice" (1987), "Red Heat" (1988), "Johnny Handsome" (1989) and "Another 48 Hours" (1990) - that, despite their professional polish, did not live up to the critical and commercial expectations established by his earlier work. After serving as executive producer and story author for James Cameron's "Aliens" (1986), his stake in the "Alien" franchise gave him his only blockbuster of the last half of the decade.
By the mid-1980s, Hill joined with such esteemed colleagues as Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver and Richard Donner as executive producer(s) of the HBO series "Tales From the Crypt" (1989-96), based on the comic book series. This lucrative franchise played like a more adult version of Rod Serling's seminal "Night Gallery," with half-hour segments devoted to creating chills with the requisite nudity and profanity allowed on premium cable channels. Hill also helmed the occasional episode. The team's attempt to repeat this success with another HBO series, "Perversions of Science" (1997), however, fell far short. Also adapted from a comic book, these tales relied more on bizarre plots and special effects and less on the off-beat humor that permeated "Tales From the Crypt."
Although "Alien3" (1992) - which he co-scripted and co-produced sans Cameron - was a pale deja vu of its predecessors, Hill's culturally disreputable "Trespass" (1992) was his most entertaining film in years, earning him a shot at making the very personal "Geronimo: An American Legend" (1993). Shooting in the same Utah locations frequently used by John Ford, the director delivered a film of great beauty and considerable intelligence, but the TNT television biopic "Geronimo" beat it to the punch, airing just a week before the feature film's release and stealing for free its potential audience. Though it wreaked of Hollywood compromise, in that it bolstered the parts of Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman at the expense of Native American actor Wes Studi in the title role, its juxtaposition of Jason Patric with Studi - whose gang of ragtag Apaches invoked "The Warriors" - brilliantly emphasizes the impossibility of ever going home.
Hill followed with another revisionist Western, "Wild Bill" (1995), an elegiac meditation on the perils of celebrity starring Jeff Bridges as Wild Bill Hickock and Ellen Barkin as an appropriately rough-and-tumble Calamity Jane, but neither it nor the subsequent "Last Man Standing" (1996) - a remake of Akira Kurasawa's "Yojimbo" (1961) starring Bruce Willis - created much activity at the turnstiles. After a three year absence, Hill returned to the big screen to replace Geoffrey Wright at the helm of "Supernova" (1999), a sci-fi thriller set in the 22nd Century which tanked at the box office. After the "Supernova" debacle, Hill directed the Wesley Snipes-Ving Rhames boxing stinker, "Undisputed" (2002), effectively leaving enough of a bad taste in his mouth to turn to directing for television. Hill regained his footing on the small screen, directing the pilot episode for David Milch's Shakespearean western, "Deadwood" (HBO, 2004-07), for which he won an Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series. In 2007, Hill found himself on the cusp of a second Emmy award after being nominated for Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special for "Broken Trail" (AMC, 2006-07), a sweeping western about an old cowboy (Robert Duvall) and his nephew (Thomas Hayden Church) trying to find safe haven for five Chinese women who were kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery.