Steven Hill, the stoic actor who was an original castmember on both the 1960s iconic television series Mission: Impossible and the ground-breaking 1990s drama Law & Order, died Tuesday. He was 94.
Hill, who began his career on the New York stage and went on to build an impressive list of film and television credits that spanned more than five decades, died in Monsey, N.Y., his son, Rabbi Yehoshua Hill, told The Hollywood Reporter.
“Steven was not only one of the truly great actors of his generation, he was one of the most intelligent people I have ever met,” said Law & Order creator Dick Wolf in a statement. “He is also the only actor I’ve known who consistently tried to cut his own lines. He will be missed but fortunately he can be seen ubiquitously on Law & Order reruns.”
When Mission: Impossible debuted in 1966 on CBS, it was Hill, as Daniel Briggs, who originally led the covert Impossible Missions Force. IMF was known for taking on government assignments that were so classified, the Secretary would disavow any knowledge of their actions if a member were caught or killed.
Briggs also was the first to hear the show’s iconic catchphrase, “This tape will self-destruct in five seconds.” But in the pilot episode, he actually received his mission on an LP and was told, “As usual, this recording will decompose one minute after the breaking of the seal.”
Nearly a quarter-century later, Hill made his mark in Law & Order as no-nonsense District Attorney Adam Schiff. Starting with the show’s debut on NBC in 1990, Hill anchored the legal side of the long-running procedural for its first 10 seasons.
Said to be loosely modeled after real-life New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, Schiff’s primary duty was to keep his maverick staff of attorneys, which included Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), Abbie Carmichael (Angie Harmon) and Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty), from bending the law in their pursuit of justice.
Hill, though, perhaps was at his best on the stage. One of the original members of The Actors Studio, the renowned New York school founded in 1947, Hill was a standout among such fellow performers as Montgomery Clift, Julie Harris and Marlon Brando.
As Martin Landau recalled in the book Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball: “When I first became an actor, there were two young actors in New York: Marlon Brando and Steven Hill. A lot of people said that Steven would have been the one, not Marlon. He was legendary. Nuts, volatile, mad, and his work was exciting.”
Born Solomon Krakovsky in Seattle, Hill was first struck by the acting bug when he saw his sister perform in a talent contest. ”I saw her onstage and I thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind that, all those people looking at me, the spotlight shining on me,'” he told The New York Times in a 1983 interview. “‘That could be fun.'”
After serving a four-year stint in the Navy during World War II, Hill headed to New York in pursuit of that fun. He landed his first role in the 1946 production of Ben Hecht’s A Flag Is Born, which advocated for the creation of the state of Israel. His character was known only as 1st Soldier. Hill also understudied Brando. Other notables in the cast include Paul Muni, Jonathan Harris and William Allyn.
It was Hill’s second gig that convinced him he could make it as an actor. In 1948, he was cast in the original stage production of Mr. Roberts in the role of the sailor Stefanowski. With Henry Fonda as the title character, the play enjoyed more than 1,100 performances before closing in 1951.
As Hill recounted in a 1996 New York Times interview, “The director, Joshua Logan, thought I had some ability, and he let me create one of the scenes. So I improvised dialogue and it went in the show. That was my first endorsement. It gave me tremendous encouragement to stay in the business.”
From Mr. Roberts, Hill segued into productions of Sundown Beach, The Lady From the Sea and The Country Girl. He made his film debut in A Lady Without Passport (1950).
Though he was getting good reviews, Hill also was realizing what the term “starving actor” meant. He decided to re-enlist in the Navy for another two-year term and reassess his career choice.
When he did return to acting in 1952, Hill focused on the emerging medium of television. He worked steadily, appearing in just about every theater anthology on the air during the decade. He also landed key roles in the films The Goddess (1958) and Kiss Her Goodbye (1959).
In 1961, Hill returned to Broadway for what is considered his most notable stage performance, playing Sigmund Freud in A Far Country. In one scene, Kim Stanley, playing Freud’s patient, would scream at the doctor, “You’re a Jew!” The experience prodded Hill to reexamine his own religious beliefs.
“When she would let loose this blast, I would take it. And in the pause that followed, I would think, ‘What about this?’ And I was provoked to explore my religion,” Hill remembered in the 1983 Times story. ”I slowly became aware that there was something more profound going on in the world than just plays and movies and TV shows.”
As a result, Hill became an Orthodox Jew — a decision that would impact his career. As observing Shabbat made him unavailable for Friday night or Saturday matinee performances, his stage career was essentially over. He also lost movie roles, most notably a lead in The Sand Pebbles (1966).
Television was more accommodating. Throughout the early 1960s, Hill’s TV credits continued to expand and included appearances on Route 66, Dr. Kildare, The Untouchables, Naked City, Ben Casey, Rawhide and The Fugitive. He also was in the films A Child Is Waiting (1963) and The Slender Thread (1965).
And then he landed Mission: Impossible. Though Hill enjoyed the challenges of the series’ complex storylines, there was a conflict from the beginning. The executives at CBS, who had picked up the program, were not thrilled by his casting. The feeling was he was not commercial enough to be the lead. But series creator Bruce Geller wanted Hill and fought for him. Geller also found an ally in Lucille Ball, who was then head of Desilu, the production company producing the series. Ball’s clout got Hill the job.
Ultimately, it was Hill who gave the CBS suits a reason not to renew his contract. The actor had agreed to star as IMF’s leader on the condition that he could adhere to the tenets of his religion. As the season worn on, the difficult shooting schedule often resulted in delays and overruns, many times into Friday night when Hill wasn’t available. The more days he missed, the more the network complained.
Mission: Impossible was a hit and renewed for a second season. Hill wasn’t. He was replaced by Peter Graves as Jim Phelps. Graves stayed with the series until its end in 1973. Daniel Briggs was not mentioned during the remaining six seasons.
Hill didn’t work as an actor for the next 10 years. He tried his hand at selling real estate and attempted to write. For a time, he lived in a community of religious Jews in New York’s Rockland County.
But Hill couldn’t resist the lure of acting and returned in 1977 with a role on the TV series The Andros Targets. This was followed by the miniseries King and then a steady stream of film parts in It’s My Turn (1980), Eyewitness (1981), Rich and Famous (1981), Yentl (1983), Teachers (1984), Garbo Talks (1984), Raw Deal (1986), Legal Eagles (1986), Heartburn (1986), Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986), Running on Empty (1988), White Palace (1990) and The Firm (1993).
In between films, he sprinkled in television appearances on One Life to Live, Columbo, Thirtysomething, Between Two Women and Equal Justice.
While in production on the film Billy Bathgate (1991), Hill got word of a series called Law & Order. “The whole concept of that title hit me,” Hill said.
When the pilot filmed in 1988, Hill’s character wasn’t in the story. Instead, it featured Roy Thinnes as District Attorney Alfred Wentworth. Law & Order got the green light in 1990. But Thinnes opted to accept a more prominent role on a reboot of Dark Shadows. Hill was cast as Schiff. The pilot episode “Everybody’s Favorite Bagman,” featuring Thinnes, aired as the sixth episode of Law & Order’s first season.
While Dark Shadows was canceled after one season, Hill played Schiff for more than 225 episodes. “There’s a certain positive statement in this show,” he said in the 1996 Times feature. “So much is negative today. The positive must be stated to rescue us from pandemonium. To me it lies in that principle: law and order.”
When he decided to leave Law & Order in 2000, Hill was the longest-running regular castmember on the show. When it ended its run in 2010, only three others had logged more episodes — Waterston, S. Epatha Merkerson and Jerry Orbach. The role earned Hill two Emmy nominations for outstanding actor in a drama series. The character also appeared in a 2000 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Hill retired after leaving Law & Order, though in 2002, he was lured back to the camera for a series of commercials as the spokesperson for the online investment firm TD Waterhouse.
In 1951, Hill married Selma Stern. The couple had four children before divorcing in 1964. Years later, Stern went on to an acting career of her own, appearing in Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000), Bruce Almighty (2003) and Made of Honor (2008).
Remarried in 1967, Hill is survived by his second wife Rachel. The couple had five children.