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Directed by George Roy Hill
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George Roy Hill Profile

George Roy Hill belonged to the generation of film directors who began their careers directing live television during the 1950s. Others included Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah. Although Hill did not receive the same degree of critical attention as some of his contemporaries, over the course of his career he made a series of entertaining and meticulously crafted films that often contained a subtle and ironic critique of American values underneath the surface. He was also known for his professionalism, reliably completing films on schedule and under budget. Although he is usually not characterized as an "actor's director" in the same way as Lumet, his training in theater and television nonetheless frequently showed through in the strong performances which he elicited from his actors.

Born in Minneapolis in 1921, Hill studied music composition with Paul Hindemith at Yale University before serving in the Marine Corps as a pilot during World War II. "I was crazy about flying from the time I was a kid," he later said. His lifelong interest in flying would find its way into his early television script My Brother's Keeper (1953) and, most famously, the Robert Redford vehicle The Great Waldo Pepper (1975). After the war, Hill went to Trinity College in Dublin to study literature. He also acted and directed for the Irish stage before returning to New York. From 1951 to 1953 he served again as a pilot in the Korean War.

In the 1950s, Hill began writing scripts and eventually directed episodes for live dramatic anthologies such as Kraft Television Theater and Playhouse 90. He recalled in an interview with Gorham Kindem: "I loved the challenge and the pressure. That was what made it all worthwhile. There weren't that many people that were doing it, and they were all young people. [...] You had to do things that people had never done before, and it was daring, and how it got done as well as it did get done is a miracle." Highlights of his television dramas included A Night to Remember (1956), about the sinking of the Titanic, and The Helen Morgan Story (1957). His last major television productions were Child of Our Time (1959) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1959), both starring Maximilian Schell, whom Hill had brought over from Germany. (Stanley Kramer eventually directed the film adaptation of Judgment at Nuremberg, again starring Maximilian Schell.)

Hill's first two feature films represented a logical outgrowth of his stage experience. Period of Adjustment (1962) was an adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play which he had directed previously on Broadway. Although it does not entirely escape the feel of a filmed play, it features a delightful comic performance by Jane Fonda. Toys in the Attic (1963), based on the Lillian Hellman play, earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design. His real breakthrough, however, came with The World of Henry Orient (1964), which represented the U.S. at the Cannes Film Festival and still stands out today for its perceptive and sympathetic treatment of childhood.

Hawaii (1966), adapted from the chapter about nineteenth century missionaries coming to Hawaii in James Michener's sprawling historical novel, used the story of clashing cultures and the corruption of missionary ideals to comment on the Vietnam War, which Hill strongly opposed. At the time, the film was appreciated mainly as a historical epic; it earned seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Supporting Actress for Jocelyne LaGarde's performance as Queen Malama. In a similar vein, Hill's deft, underrated adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) used the firebombing of Dresden to draw a more explicit parallel with the Vietnam War.

The period musical Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) was one of Universal's highest grossing films of the era, though Hill later complained that the producer Ross Hunter changed it against his wishes. Hill's next film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), was a nostalgic spoof of Westerns which catapulted Robert Redford into stardom and won four Academy Awards, including for Burt Bacharach's score and Conrad Hall's iconic cinematography. Hill further affirmed his gift for period films with The Sting (1973), which reunited Newman and Redford, became one of the all-time box-office champs, and won seven Academy Awards--including Best Picture and Best Director.

For the rest of the decade, Hill continued to explore a wide range of genres, including the bittersweet flying film The Great Waldo Pepper, the hockey film Slap Shot (1977) and the adolescent drama A Little Romance (1979). He experienced something of a late-career renaissance with The World According to Garp (1982), adapted from the bestselling John Irving novel and offering Robin Williams his first dramatic role. Both Glenn Close and John Lithgow received Academy Award nominations for their supporting roles. Lithgow in particular is memorable as Roberta, the transgendered former football star. Indeed, The World According to Garp foregrounded Hill's skill at adapting challenging works for the screen and his fondness for ironic social commentary.

by James Steffen
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