Hal Ashby


Director
Hal Ashby

About

Birth Place
Ogden, Utah, USA
Born
September 02, 1929
Died
December 27, 1988
Cause of Death
Liver And Colon Cancer

Biography

After winning acclaim as a film editor, Hal Ashby went on to establish himself as one of the leading directors of the 1970s. He proved successful with both satiric material and strong drama and was able to elicit excellent performances from a gallery of actors including Lee Grant, Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, all of whom won Oscars under Ashby's direction.Born and raised in Utah, Ashby had...

Family & Companions

Joan Marshall Ashby
Wife
Writer, producer, dancer, actor. Ashby's widow; later married Mel Bartfield; died on June 28, 1992 in Jamaica of lung cancer; survived by Bartfield and one daughter.
Dyan Cannon
Companion
Actor. Dated in the early 1970s.
Mimi Machu
Companion

Notes

"A common denominator of all his films is the excellence of the performances. Mr. Ashby casts his films as carefully as he directs them." --Vincent Canby, quoted in Ashby's obituary in The New York Times, December 28, 1988.

Biography

After winning acclaim as a film editor, Hal Ashby went on to establish himself as one of the leading directors of the 1970s. He proved successful with both satiric material and strong drama and was able to elicit excellent performances from a gallery of actors including Lee Grant, Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, all of whom won Oscars under Ashby's direction.

Born and raised in Utah, Ashby had a rather unhappy childhood. His parents divorced when he was around six and his father committed suicide seven years later. Finding school work difficult, Ashby dropped out in his senior year. A period of instability followed; reportedly he held a number of jobs and was twice married and divorced before he decided to hitchhike to L.A. in 1953. Thanks to the California State Department of Unemployment, he began his Hollywood career as a mimeograph machine operator at Universal Studios in 1957. Deciding that he wanted to direct movies, Ashby was told the best way to achieve that goal would be to become a film editor. Despite finding the union rules (which required an eight year apprenticeship) somewhat stifling, the fledgling filmmaker began as an assistant to Robert Swink, earning his first credit on "The Big Country" in 1958. Within a decade, he had risen to editor on Tony Richardson's "The Loved One" (1964). Norman Jewison tapped him to cut "The Cincinnati Kid" (1965) and the pair went on to establish a fruitful collaboration that yielded "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming" (1966, for which Ashby earned his first Oscar nomination), "In the Heat of the Night" (1967, for which he won an Oscar) and, especially, "The Thomas Crown Affair" (1968). The latter marked Ashby's first collaboration with Pablo Ferro, who created and edited the special multiple screen effects sequence which garnered much critical praise; they were to work on a number of other projections over the next decade.

When Jewison was unable to carry out the assignment of helming "The Landlord" (1970), he offered Ashby a chance to handle the directing chores. An offbeat comedy about a rich white man (Beau Bridges) who buys a Brooklyn tenement in a ghetto and finds the residents unwilling to move. Critics were divided as to whether the film was hilarious or too slick. Lee Grant earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination as Bridges' dense mother.

Ashby's second outing behind the cameras resulted in the cult classic "Harold and Maude" (1971). Another black comedy with a biting script by Colin Higgins, the film centered on the unlikely relationship between a rich kid (Bud Cort) who fakes suicides and a free-spirited septuagenarian (Ruth Gordon). Ashby demonstrated a sure hand with the actors (particularly Vivian Pickles as Harold's mother) and struck a balance between whimsy and absurdity.

"The Last Detail" (1973) was on the surface a road movie about two military policemen (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) assigned to escort a kleptomaniac sailor (Randy Quaid) from Virginia to a navy prison in New Hampshire. With a bitterly cynical script by Robert Towne, "Last Detail" marked the turning point in Ashby's career, with many critics proclaiming this film his best. Focusing more on character and eschewing flashy techniques, the director executed a somber variation on the theme of much of his work: how does one live? "The Landlord" and "Harold and Maude" both suggested individualistic approaches to life from an external view while in "The Last Detail," the issue is internalized. Life for its characters is a series of prisons, many of their own making. To symbolize this constriction, Ashby employed fewer rhythmic montages and used more dissolves and tight shots. The result earned Oscar nods for stars Nicholson and Quaid and for Towne's script.

As a follow-up, the director was initially set to reteam with Nicholson on "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," but a disagreement over the direction of the script led to Ashby's resignation. Instead, he became intrigued by a script that Robert Towne and Warren Beatty had co-written, "Shampoo" (1975), a satirical look at the mores of Beverly Hills. Ashby was near his peak handling the story's complicated sexual entanglements and amoral characters that were reminiscent of a Restoration comedy. "Shampoo" was a box-office hit and garnered a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Lee Grant.

With the clout of a success, the director signed to helm a biopic of folk singer Woody Guthrie, "Bound for Glory" (1976), adapted from the singer's autobiography by Robert Getchell. Gorgeously photographed by Haskell Wexler, the well-cast feature (including David Carradine, Melinda Dillon and Ronny Cox) received critical encomiums but a so-so box office. Ashby's direction was cited by several reviewers who praised the pacing and dramatically credible storytelling. The film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and won for Wexler's cinematography and Leonard Rosenman's adapted musical score. Ironically, Ashby was not nominated as Best Director.

He would receive that honor for his next film, the Vietnam-era drama "Coming Home" (1978). Initiated by star Jane Fonda, who had her own history in the anti-war movement, the film was a character study that narrowly avoided verging into soap opera. Reportedly, when production began, there was no completed script, yet however difficult a shoot it might have been, audiences embraced the results. "Coming Home" was a financial success and, along with "The Deer Hunter" (also 1978), helped Americans confront some of the legacies of the Vietnam War despite its triangular love story between Fonda, Jon Voight (as a paraplegic) and Bruce Dern (as Fonda's gung-ho Marine husband). Overall, the film earned eight Oscar nominations and won awards for Fonda, Voight and screenwriters Nancy Dowd, Waldo Salt and Robert C Jones.

The last of Ashby's well-received films was "Being There" (1979), a black comedy about life in the television age that was marred by its length. Again, the director elicited terrific performances. Peter Sellers had the lead playing a simple-minded gardener whose homely pronouncements are misinterpreted as profound statements; eventually he goes from nobody to household name and presidential candidate. Among the others in the outstanding cast were Jack Warden (as the US president), Shirley MacLaine as a wealthy society matron and Melvyn Douglas (who earned his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar) as her billionaire husband. Ashby handled the material with a sure hand and the film provoked many heated debates over its themes.

The decade of the 1980s, however, saw Ashby hit a slump from which he never recovered. Some attributed the decline in quality to personal problems (including alleged substance abuse) while others faulted his choice of material. "Second-Hand Hearts" (1980) had actually been filmed before "Being There" but a distribution disagreement delayed its release. Originally titled "The Hampster of Happiness," the film was a road movie about a drunken loser (Robert Blake) who marries an aspiring singer (Barbara Harris). Critics further carped over "Lookin' to Get Out" (1982), co-written by star Jon Voight, was a predictable Runyonesque story of a small-time gambler. Shot in 1980, Ashby spent over two years editing the film, but the end result was dismissed by the critics and audiences. Except for the superior documentary of the Rolling Stones tour, "Let's Spend the Night Together" (1982), Ashby's remaining output was inferior to his best work. "The Slugger's Wife" (1984) was a bad Neil Simon script loosely based on the real-life romance of baseball player Mike Marshall and rock singer Belinda Carlisle with Michael O'Keefe and Rebecca DeMornay. Most reviewers singled out the supporting cast (including Martin Ritt and Randy Quaid) but over-all gave thumbs down. Ashby's last feature was "8 Million Ways to Die" (1986), a tale of drug dealers adapted from Lawrence Block novel by Oliver Stone. He was eventually locked out of the editing room after clashing with the producers over the direction of the film. The final result met a mixed critical reception and was a box-office disappointment.

At the time of his death from liver and colon cancer in December 1988, Ashby had a number of projects in development, including "Tootsie," several projects with Jack Nicholson and an adaptation of Truman Capote's "Hand Carved Coffins."

Life Events

1941

Father committed suicide

1953

Hitchhiked to Los Angeles

1958

First film credit, "The Big Country"; worked under Robert Swink who became Ashby's mentor

1965

First film as co-editor, "The Loved One"

1965

First film as solo editor, "The Cincinnati Kid"; first screen collaboration with Norman Jewison

1966

Garnered first Oscar nomination for Best Editing for Jewison's comedy "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming"

1967

Won Best Editing Oscar for Jewison's "In the Heat of the Night"

1968

First film as associate producer (also supervising editor), "The Thomas Crown Affair"

1970

Film directing debut, "The Landlord"

1971

Directed the cult classic "Harold and Maude"

1975

Teamed with Robert Towne and Warren Beatty to helm "Shampoo"

1976

Helmed the acclaimed biopic of folk singer Woody Guthrie, "Bound for Glory"; film earned Best Picture Oscar nomination

1978

Earned Best Director Oscar nomination for "Coming Home"

1979

Won further acclaim for directing Peter Sellars in "Being There"

1982

Helmed the documentary "Let Spend the Night Together", about the Rolling Stones

1986

Directed last film, "Eight Million Ways to Die"

1987

Helmed the pilot for the TV series "Beverly Hills Buntz"

Videos

Movie Clip

Landlord, The (1970) - Great Costume! The bustling costume-party scene from Hal Ashby's The Landlord, 1970, featuring Lee Grant, Beau Bridges, Marki Bey, Susan Anspach, Robert Klein (in black-face!) and Walter Brooke, photographed by Gordon Willis.
Landlord, The (1970) - It Ain't Your Baby Explosive scene in which Elgar (Beau Bridges, title character) overhears tenant Fanny (Diana Sands) telling husband Copee (Louis Gossett) she's pregnant, and it goes badly, in Hal Ashby's The Landlord, 1970.
Landlord, The (1970) - I Never Eat Lunch Society mom Joyce (Lee Grant) gets lubricated by fortune-teller and tenant Marge (Pearl Bailey) on a visit to her son's Brooklyn apartment building, in editor-turned-director Hal Ashby's debut film The Landlord, 1970.
Landlord, The (1970) - Open, How Do We LIve? Opening with emphasis on Beau Bridges, the title character, addressing the camera, in the little-noticed but well-regarded satire/melodrama about urban race relations, and the first feature by whiz-kid editor Hal Ashby, who was given the directing assignment by his mentor Norman Jewison who stepped aside to produce, The Landlord, 1970.
Thomas Crown Affair, The (1968) -- Let's Play Something Else After the pantomime with the chess pieces, Vicki (Faye Dunaway) and Steve McQueen (title character) in the often-mocked "360" shot, in Norman Jewison's The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968, photography by Haskell Wexler.
Thomas Crown Affair, The (1968) - Windmills Of Your Mind The snazzy opening from director Norman Jewison (and editors Hal Ashby and Ralph Winters), Noel Harrison’s vocal on the hit tune by Michel Legrand and Alan & Marilyn Bergman, leading to title character Steve McQueen interrogating clownish recruit Jack Weston, in The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968.
Thomas Crown Affair, The (1968) - Blessed Are The Pure In Heart The climax of the elaborate opening bank heist in Boston, Erwin (Jack Weston), the literal bag-man, delivers loot to a suburban cemetery where mastermind and title character Steve McQueen awaits in his Rolls-Royce, in director Norman Jewison’s original The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968.
Thomas Crown Affair, The (1968) - Whose Head Are You After? Bostonian Steve McQueen (title character), whose hobby is bank robbery, makes a point of meeting Vicki (Faye Dunaway) at an art auction, having noticed her photographing him earlier at a polo match, whereupon she reveals her own game, in Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968.
Being There (1979) - Chauncey Gardiner Aimless gardener Chance (Peter Sellers) fascinated by a Washington, D.C. shop window TV display, meets well-to-do Eve (Shirley MacLaine) who surmises a name for him, in Hal Ashby's Being There, 1979.
Shampoo (1975) - I'm A Star At the Beverly Hills salon where he works for Norman (Jay Robinson), hairdresser George (co-writer and producer Warren Beatty), aiming to start his own salon, juggles wealthy client/girlfriend Felicia (Lee Grant) and actual girlfriend Jill (Goldie Hawn), who may have an offer to work abroad, in Shampoo, 1975.
Shampoo (1975) - Don't Let Me Drink Too Much Escorting his ex-paramour Jackie (Julie Christie), along with current girlfriend Jill (Goldie Hawn), who’s officially with director Johnny (Tony Bill), hairdresser George (producer and co-writer Warren Beatty) at a Beverly Hills Republican election night party, November 1968, Jack Warden as high-roller Lester, Jackie’s sugar-daddy, who thinks George is gay, in Shampoo, 1975.
Shampoo (1975) - Somebody's Gonna Get Me Called away from another tryst elsewhere in LA, November 4, 1968, hair stylist George (co-writer and producer Warren Beatty) visits needy Jill (Goldie Hawn, her first scene) at her Laurel Canyon pad, in director Hal Ashby's Shampoo, 1975.

Trailer

Coming Home (1978) -- (Original Trailer) With the Simon and Garfunkel recording of Paul Simon’s “Bookends,” the original trailer for director Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, 1978, which won Best Actor and Best Actress Academy Awards for Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, and for the original screenplay by Nancy Dowd, Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones.
Harold and Maude - (Original Trailer) Bud Cort (then 19) and Ruth Gordon (then 75) make an unusual couple in Hal Ashby's cult comedy Harold and Maude (1971).
Last Detail, The - (Original Trailer) Two shore patrolmen decide to show a prisoner a good time on his way to the brig in The Last Detail (1973) starring Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid.
Gaily, Gaily - (Original Trailer) Beau Bridges plays a young man coming of age in corrupt 1910's Chicago in Gaily, Gaily (1969) based on a novel by Ben Hecht (The Front Page).
Loved One, The - (Original Trailer) Robert Morse heads an all-star cast in the bizarre comedy The Loved One (1965) based on a novel by Evelyn Waugh.
Shampoo -- (Original Trailer) Warren Beatty plays a Hollywood hairdresser who does clients as well as hairdos during the late 1960's in Shampoo, 1975, with Julie Christie and Lee Grant in an Academy Award-winning role.
Being There - (Original Trailer) Peter Sellers gave perhaps his greatest performance in Hal Ashby's wicked satire Being There (1979).
Landlord, The - (Original Trailer) A spoiled rich boy buys a Brooklyn tenement and gets mixed up in his tenants' lives in The Landlord (1970) starring Beau Bridges.
Cincinnati Kid, The - (Original Trailer) Card sharks try to deal with personal problems during a big game in New Orleans in The Cincinnati Kid (1965), starring Steve McQueen.
Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, The - (Wide release trailer) When a Russian sub runs aground in New England, it creates a local panic in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, 1966, starring Alan Arkin, directed by Norman Jewison.

Family

Ardith Thompson
Sister
Survived him.
Jack Ashby
Brother
Survived him.

Companions

Joan Marshall Ashby
Wife
Writer, producer, dancer, actor. Ashby's widow; later married Mel Bartfield; died on June 28, 1992 in Jamaica of lung cancer; survived by Bartfield and one daughter.
Dyan Cannon
Companion
Actor. Dated in the early 1970s.
Mimi Machu
Companion

Bibliography

Notes

"A common denominator of all his films is the excellence of the performances. Mr. Ashby casts his films as carefully as he directs them." --Vincent Canby, quoted in Ashby's obituary in The New York Times, December 28, 1988.