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Arthur Hiller, the Oscar-nominated director who transitioned from television to helm such classic films as Love Story, The Out-of-Towners and The In-Laws before serving four terms as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has died. He was 92.
Hiller, the 2002 recipient of the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his lifetime of charitable efforts, died Wednesday in Los Angeles of natural causes, AMPAS announced.
A native of Edmonton, Alberta, Hiller started out in radio and then television, directing scores of episodes of such series as Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Rifleman. He received an Emmy nomination for an installment of the gritty ABC drama Naked City and helmed the pilot for the wacky ABC sitcom The Addams Family.
The well-liked Hiller went on to direct more than 30 features in all manner of genres, from intense dramas to light comedies to musicals.
He did two films with screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky — The Americanization of Emily (1964), starring James Garner and Julie Andrews, and The Hospital (1971), toplined by George C. Scott — and two others with Neil Simon: The Out-of-Towners (1970), starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis as hopeless suburbanites, and the three-act Plaza Suite (1971), starring Walter Matthau.
In addition to the comedy The In-Laws (1979), which featured Alan Arkin as a mild-mannered dentist thrust into a wild CIA caper with the father (Peter Falk) of his soon-to-be son-in-law, Hiller’s impressive body of work includes the musical Man of La Mancha (1972), with Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren; The Man in the Glass Booth (1975), starring Maximilian Schell; and Silver Streak (1976), the first pairing of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.
Hiller’s Love Story (1970), the tragic romantic tearjerker from Paramount that starred Ryan O’Neal as a college kid from a wealthy family and Ali MacGraw as a wisecracking working-class girl, earned seven Oscar nominations, including one for best picture and mentions for Hiller and the two leads.
“I was busting my ass to keep it from being a soap opera,” Hiller told Vanity Fair in 2010. “I wanted you to care, but not to be crying from the beginning.”
Adapted from the sensational-selling novel by Yale professor Erich Segal (who also wrote the screenplay) and released in theaters mere months after the book entered stores, Love Story grossed $106.4 million at the box office, or $659 million in today’s dollars, putting it in the top 40 grossers of all time when adjusted for inflation, according to Box Office Mojo.
“Arthur Hiller was an integral part of one of the most important experiences of my life,” MacGraw said in a statement. “He was a remarkable, gifted, generous human being, and I will miss him terribly.”
Love Story also is one of the most profitable features ever. Made for less than $2 million — Hiller had to raise his right hand and swear to Paramount executive Robert Evans that he would bring in the film under that figure — it enabled the financially troubled studio to survive and make such subsequent hits as Chinatown and The Godfather.
“The movie caught on like wildfire,” Hiller, who won a Golden Globe for his work, once said. “I remember driving past one theater where it was playing and seeing a line four blocks long!
“Many moviegoers wanted a respite from the [rough] type of films [of the era] … a change of pace. Love Story was just what the title indicated, just what we promised; Erich called it ‘an affirmation of the human spirit.’ He was right, and at that particular moment in time, we were all looking for that affirmation.”
Hiller served as the 29th Academy president from 1993-97, succeeding (and being succeeded by) producer-executive Robert Rehme. He was president of the Directors Guild of America from 1989-93 and the recipient of the guild’s prestigious Robert B. Aldrich Achievement Award in 1999.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of our beloved friend Arthur Hiller,” Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs said in a statement. “I was a member of the board during his presidency and fortunate enough to witness firsthand his dedication to the Academy and his lifelong passion for visual storytelling.”
Added DGA president Paris Barclay: “As guild president, Arthur was a warm and nurturing father figure who was deeply concerned with the personal and professional well-being of every one of our members. Whether lobbying on Capitol Hill for the artistic integrity of filmmakers worldwide, negotiating with the studios to secure health and pension provisions for our families or establishing the first committee to advance opportunities for women and minorities, Arthur’s passion was exemplary and inspiring. Our guild is stronger because of him.”
Hiller also dabbled in acting, often playing a judge or scientist. “I’m asked, maybe once a year, to act,” he said in a 2003 interview with the Archive of American Television. “But it’s not me they want, it’s my hair.”
Hiller was born in Edmonton on Nov. 22, 1923. His parents, Polish immigrants Harry and Rose, started an amateur Yiddish theater in the Canadian city, and Hiller was appearing in small roles by age 11.
After high school, Hiller spent three years in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He flew bombing raids over Germany during World War II, then attended the University of Toronto and earned a master’s in psychology.
In 1950, Hiller began producing and directing talk shows and radio drama documentaries for the CBC before helming live TV dramas at the network. He came to Los Angeles in 1955 to direct for the new NBC drama series Matinee Theatre, then helmed live Playhouse 90 dramas for CBS.
Through the mid-1960s, Hiller went on to direct multiple episodes of other series like Telephone Time, The Detectives, The Third Man, Boris Karloff’s Thriller (including its pilot), Naked City, Route 66, Gunsmoke, Ben Casey and I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster.
Hiller also directed such films as The Careless Years (1957), starring Dean Stockwell; W.C. Fields and Me (1976), with Rod Steiger as the comic legend; Author! Author! (1982), starring Al Pacino; The Lonely Guy (1984), with Steve Martin; Outrageous Fortune (1987), starring Bette Midler and Shelley Long; The Babe (1992), with John Goodman as Yankees slugger Babe Ruth; An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn (1997), in which he mirrored the plot of the movie and yanked his name off the film written by Joe Eszterhas; and his final credit as a director, Pucked (2006), starring Jon Bon Jovi.
He once said his favorite feature was the MGM anti-war comedy Americanization of Emily; he fought and succeeded to film the movie in black and white.
A member of the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress from 1989-2005, Hiller was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada in 2007.
He was involved with such charitable organizations as the Motion Picture and Television Fund, Los Angeles public TV station KCET, Amnesty International, Inner City Filmmakers, the Los Angeles Central Library’s reading program, the Deaf Arts Council, the Anti-Defamation League and Humanitas.
His wife of 68 years, Gwen, died on June 24. They were born 10 days apart in Edmonton, and he first proposed to her when she was 8. His survivors include children Erica and Henryk and five grandchildren.
After MacGraw and O’Neal presented him with the Hersholt honor at the Oscars, Hiller said, “It’s so embarrassing to receive an award for doing what you should be doing, but I must admit it pleases me greatly.”
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