Thursday, August 18, 2016


Director Arthur Hiller has died.  When I read the headline, I had a sense of deja vu--because I saw the same thing ten years ago in a local paper but they had made a horrible mistake, since they were referring to the death of noted actor Arthur Hill.

Hiller, while not generally a critical favorite, was a major Hollywood director with a long and notable career.  Born in Canada, he became a top TV director (for American television) starting in the 1950s.  He signed his name to over 100 episodes of such titles as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Gunsmoke and Route 66.

He worked his way into movies, generally doing middling comedies like The Wheeler Dealers, Promise Her Anything and Penelope, which are mostly forgotten today, but still occasionally pop up on TV.  But one film from his early period, The Americanization Of Emily, is still talked about.  It's a fairly dark comedy about WWII, written by Paddy Chayefsky, starring James Garner and Julie Andrews.  I can't say I'm a fan, but it shows that Hiller could handle tougher material.

In the late 60s, he directed The Tiger Makes Out--a weak adaptation by Murray Schisgal of his own play, but of interest if for no other reason that it's Dustin Hoffman's first film appearance.  That was followed by Popi, a reasonably touching film starring Alan Arkin as a single Puerto Rican father of two boys. Then came The Out Of Towners, an original screenplay by Neil Simon, where Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis have a horrible trip to New York.  Some people are fans of this film, but the protagonists are made so miserable I can't enjoy it.

Then Hiller hit it big.  Directing a screenplay by Erich Segal (which he'd already turned into a hit novel), Love Story became the biggest hit of 1970.  While the plot is a bit over the top, the film delivers what it promises, and Arthur Hiller took what could have been a nothing and made it work.  The film got him his one and only Oscar nomination for Best Director.

Hiller was now a major director.  He made The Hospital in 1971, starring recent Oscar-winner (and Oscar-refuser) George C. Scott.  It's a Paddy Chayefsky script about health care in America.  Once again, some consider it a classic, but I don't go for it.

Hiller average about a film a year during this period, and in 1976 had another huge hit with Silver Streak, which teamed up Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor.  Sorry to say, I'm not a big fan.

So why am I dong a tribute if I don't think that much of his stuff?  Because in 1979, he came out with a comedy classic, The In-Laws, starring Peter Falk and Alan Arkin.  If you're as good as your best film, then Hiller is pretty darn good.

In 1982, he made the controversial Making Love--one of Hollywood's first films to deal directly with homosexuality. I've only seen it once, but my guess is it doesn't hold up too well.

He continued turning them out in the 80s, mostly comedies, such as Author! Author!, The Lonely Guy and, most notably, Outrageous Fortune, a decent comedy (and a hit) starring Bette Midler and Shelley Long.

Hiller worked less in the 90s and his films did less well (those two often go together).  He all but retired about twenty years ago, only coming back to make the forgettable Pucked in 2006.

There's another reason I'm writing about Hiller--I knew him.  Hope I didn't bury the lead.  When I first came out to Los Angeles, I had a contact with him and he very graciously invited me to meet him in his Beverly Hills home.  We talked for an hour about the business and he explained how tough it could be--he didn't think he'd make it if he were starting today (though perhaps he was being modest). I showed him a script I'd written.  He passed it on to his daughter, Erica, a fledgling producer, and she optioned it--it was the first money I made out here.

One thing I'm glad of--I got to tell him how much I loved The In-Laws. He told me he got more comments about that film than any other.

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