|Steven Hill served valiantly on Law & Order on every episode except the pilot. With his departure, the show will always feel a little emptier -- no matter how expertly Dianne Wiest fills the space. But who knew gruff-but-loveable Adam was only a pale imitation of the real thing? Writer John Sobiski takes an unflinching look at the man who was once compared to Brando ... and is still considered one of America's greatest living actors.|
Steven Hill: Hollywood's Most Talented Curmudgeon
When Steven Hill leaves Law & Order over the course of the coming season, it will mark a turning point in the long-running television series. His character, District Attorney Adam Schiff will lose his re-election bid to a challenger played by Oscar-winning actress Dianne Wiest, who will become the new district attorney. This will not only mean an end to the character, but Hill's departure means there will be no original cast members left from when the series premiered in September, 1990.
While this development may disappoint the many fans who appreciate the sardonic wit of the Schiff character, it really should surprise no one. When the entire cast appeared recently on The Larry King Show, both Hill and Sam Waterston, who plays Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy, hinted coyly of the nebulousness of their contract statuses. The last time Hill's contract was up for renewal, the writers had used a plot device in the event that Hill did not return to the series: During the eighth season, Schiff was embroiled in a tough election against Judge Gary Feldman, played by Cliff Gorman. The season finale left the outcome in doubt. When Hill re-signed, Schiff was still in office when the ninth season opened, indicating that he had beaten Feldman.
Ironically, though Hill was the last of the original cast to leave the show, he did not appear in the pilot episode. Roy Thinnes played District Attorney Alfred Wentworth in the episode titled "Everybody's Favorite Bagman." It took series creator Dick Wolf two years before he could sell the show to NBC, however, and by the time production began on the series, Thinnes had been offered a starring role in the prime time remake of Dark Shadows. When Thinnes chose the starring role in that series over the supporting role in Law & Order, Hill was hired to play Schiff. Unfortunately for Mr. Thinnes, Dark Shadows lasted only a few months, while Law & Order is about to enter its 11th season.
Longevity also describes Hill's acting career, which began in 1946. Born Solomon Kravoksy on February 24, 1922 in Seattle, Hill first became attracted to the theater as a child, when his sister entered a talent contest. Hill told New York Times reporter Chris Chase, "I saw her on stage and I thought, 'I wouldn't mind that, all those people looking at me, spotlight shining on me. That could be fun.' "
Nevertheless, Hill didn't pursue an acting career until after serving four years in the Naval Reserve during World War II. After his stint, he landed his first stage role in Ben Hecht's A Flag Is Born in 1946. He made his motion picture debut four years later in the movie Lady Without a Passport. He then re-enlisted in the Navy, stayed for a two-year hitch, and left in 1952 to resume his acting career in earnest. Lee Strasberg chose him as one of the founding members of The Actors' Studio, alongside such other actors as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Cliff and Julie Harris. Years later Strasberg said in a New York Times interview, "Steven Hill is considered one of the finest actors America has ever produced."
It was during the 1950s that Hill began establishing this reputation with is work on the stage. He appeared in the original productions of such Broadway hits as Sundown Beach, Lady From the Sea, Mr. Roberts and The Country Girl. He landed a major role playing Kim Stanley's son in the movie The Goddess. He also appeared in many of the dramatic anthologies that were prevalent on television at that time including Actor's Studio, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Philco Television Playhouse. He earned his Emmy nomination in 1960 for his portrayal of Bartolomeo Vanzetti in The Sacco-Vanzetti Story. In 1954 he won a Sylvania Award as Best Actor On Television for his work in Man On the Mountaintop – directed by Arthur Penn, who was recently tapped as executive producer of Law & Order.
It appeared that Hill was on his way to stardom. "When I first be came an actor," Martin Landau once said, "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."
Unfortunately, Hill's volatility was not limited to his stage work, and he developed a reputation for being unpredictably temperamental. "I was so sure I knew what the writer was trying to say," Hill told reporter Chase, "and my ideas were not always the same as the director's," Actor Albert Paulsen, a friend of Hill's dating back to The Actors' Studio, told author Patrick J. White, author of The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier, "There were always problems. Steve is a terrific guy, but he intensifies problems that are always there for actors. But you work it out, you don't stop everything. He stops and ruminates and changes things. It's not a vicious thing. It's just a problem with how he sees the truth and what it means to him."
Hill later described his point of view by saying, "I felt I had to be brash to make my mark. In this business you don't make out application forms — you have to make an instant impression. I had to do it over and over again before I was finally recognized."
Ironically, Hill's ascent ended just as he was garnering his greatest successes. In 1961 Hill won rave reviews on Broadway starring as Sigmund Freud in A Far Country. In one dramatic scene, a patient of Freud's (played by Kim Stanley) screamed at Freud, "You are a Jew!" and the intensity of the scene caused Hill to ruminate on its implications. "In the pause that followed I would think, 'What about this?' " he said in a 1983 interview. "I slowly became aware that there was something more profound going on in the world than just plays and movies and TV shows. I was provoked to explore my religion."
This exploration led Hill to pursue strict Orthodox Judaism. Among other religious rituals, this meant observing a kosher diet, wearing specially lined clothing and hosiery – and the Sabbath. Since the Jewish Sabbath runs from sunset on Friday night until sunset on Saturday night, Hill became unavailable for Friday night or Saturday matinee performances, which effectively ended his stage career and put a damper on his movie career. Although he continued to make some movies, most notably 1963's A Child Is Waiting and 1965's The Slender Thread, his unavailability cost roles in movies such as 1966's The Sand Pebbles. Hill was left with accepting assignments guest-starring on television series such as The Untouchables and The Fugitive. Such an assignment on the series Rawhide led to the next development in Hill's career. Rawhide's producer, Bruce Geller, came to like Hill as an actor as result of his work on the show. Technician Paul Krasny, who edited the episode in which Hill guest-starred, told Patrick J. White, "It was a very introverted, introspective kind of [role] and Steve was excellent in it. Bruce really got to like him from that."
Soon afterwards, Geller offered Hill the lead in a pilot that he would shoot at Desilu Studios called Briggs' Squad. During the developmental process, the project would be renamed IMF and then, finally, Mission: Impossible. Geller wanted Hill for the role of Dan Briggs, the team leader. Director Bernie Kowalski, Geller's long-time friend and colleague told White, "Steve was a very thinking, cerebral type of actor. [Geller] wanted that kind of man, the brains behind the action."
Hill brought a realism not usually seen on 1960s American television to the role of Dan Briggs. The plot of M:I's pilot concerned stealing atomic bombs from a Latin American dictator. The climatic scene came when Briggs stole the warheads, being held in a vault wired to explode. Briggs convinced the dictator to give him the correct security code by threatening to pick a combination at random. When the dictator tried to assure Briggs that the warheads would not be used against the U.S., Briggs replied, "I'll give you the same guarantee. You read my meaning? Those things might go off, but it won't be in my country."
In the realm of 1960s television protagonists, who were all unmitigated heroes, viewers could be certain that this threat was a bluff. Briggs, et. al. would not endanger innocent lives within the country. However, Hill's performance was utterly convincing – and both viewers and the Latin dictator did not feel he was bluffing. He would repeat this type of intense performance in later episodes: "Operation: Rogosh" (Briggs convinced a terrorist to divulge the details to his plan to contaminate Los Angeles' water supply by locking in a cell with a vial of his contaminant); "Shock" (Briggs got an enemy agent to divulge an assassination plot by having to shock treatments so severe that he began to hallucinate).
Not everyone at Desilu agreed with Geller's choice for the role of Briggs. Studio executives were wary of Hill's reputation for being difficult. Geller finally won them over by convincing them of Hill's believability as the ruthless mastermind of treacherous plots. Herb Solow, the Executive In Charge of Production at Desilu, told author White, " We wanted get the kind of guy you'd think would do these kinds of things."
Geller met even stronger resistance from CBS executives when that network picked up the series. They felt that since Hill was neither a matinee idol nor a "name" actor that he was too uncommercial to be a lead in a television show. This bias became clear when the show was picked up by CBS – and all other cast members except for Hill were notified, and Hill had to phone around to learn that the pilot had been successful.
Most likely Geller was able to retain Hill only because Desilu Studios was owned by Lucille Ball. Not only was Ball the most popular television star of her day and a cornerstone of CBS' programming, she had a year-to-year contract to appear on her popular Lucy Show. Ball was known to indulge in an exercise that came to be known as "The Lucy Game," in which she would scare CBS executives by threatening not to renew her contract. After Mission: Impossible went on the air, CBS vice president Perry Lafferty held a luncheon for CBS and Desilu executives solely to discuss Hill's ouster. Although she didn't attend, Ball put down the ultimatum that Hill would stay. But this wasn't the final word: CBS was unrelenting in their campaign to remove Hill, and would ultimately succeed when Geller relented and replaced him with the more traditional leading man Peter Graves.
Even still, it was neither CBS pressure or Hill's fiery reputation that ultimately ended his tenure on Mission: Impossible – he would be done in by a stipulation in his contract. Initially, Geller had wanted Hill so badly for the role of Briggs that he agreed to accommodate Hill's religious requirements. Geller' secretary, Olga Griffin told White, "Everything we had to do for him, including his shoes and his hose, had to be kosher and sent from New York." More importantly, Hill was allowed to leave the set on Friday nights to observe the Sabbath.
While this was not a problem while shooting the pilot, it was a major obstacle once the regular season went into production. Mission: Impossible quickly developed a reputation as a "director killer" because the technical requirements always caused the production to run behind schedule, which resulted in overtime for cast and crew. Actor Peter Lupus told White, "I almost got rich on the overtime! Those checks were amazing, thousands if dollars for going over. And we always went over." The need for overtime was most acute on Fridays, the last day of the production schedule. They would often work until midnight and still be behind. Crew would have to come in and do the post-production work over the weekends. In order to help keep costs under control, the post-production crew forego overtime while working weekends, in violation of their own union's rules.
However, when sunset came on Friday, Hill would leave the set in accordance with his contract. Sometimes he would even walk off in the middle of a scene. Hill refused to be flexible on this issue, and in fact grew more rigid. "It became more to the letter of his contract," series producer Joseph Gantman told White. "He'd insist on being at prayers at a certain time. He then begins to say, 'But I have to leave here in order to get where I have to pray. I can't work up until that time. You can't expect me to...' It was like that. What will happen is that people will disagree amiably, but then over a period of time it becomes very disagreeable. If someone understands your problems and says he understands them, you feel better about it. But if he doesn't care about your problems, then you begin to resent him."
There was no question of Hill's sincerity. He spent a lot of time trying to organize prayer meetings for the Jews working at Desilu. He tried to persuade co-stars Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, then husband and wife, to keep a kosher home. He often quizzed Landau on Jewish history, pointing out aspects of persecution.
Problems worsened for Hill when his temperamental streak came to the fore. Once, Hill threatened to complain to the Screen Actors Guild when dust fell on him from the studio rafters. Another time, he criticized Barbara Bain for humming prior to a close-up where she was to make a lighthearted comment. "I felt that he was digging his own grave," Martin Landau said. "There was always something self-destructive, always a part of him that didn't want success, along with this very special talent. When he wanted to work he was exceptional. When he didn't want to work, for whatever reasons, he was destructive to himself. I must say that he was troublesome at times, but basically he wasn't. Most of the time he was professional, he learned his lines and was there."
Things came to a head when filming an episode called "Action." The plot concerned an Iron Curtain movie studio producing phony newsreel footage showing American soldiers committing atrocities while fighting the Vietnam War. The story took place primarily on a studio lot, so Desilu was looking to shoot the episode cheaply in order to compensate for the cost overruns that plagued other episodes. Instead, the production went to days over schedule with a $40,000 cost overrun.
The problem came when filming the scene in which Hill's Briggs infiltrated the movie studio. The scene called for him to enter a guarded sound stage by laying atop a prop cart filled with mannequins wheeled in by a stage hand. When no one was looking, Hill was to slip off the cart and run up a stairway into the rafters. Hill refused to climb the stairway, despite that it was flanked by railings. He offered no explanation as he stormed off the set and locked himself in his dressing room, shutting down production. Bruce Geller had no choice but to suspend him for the week . This not only meant having to hire another actor to fill Hill's role in the episode, but also having to re-shoot all the scenes which had already been shot with Hill. "Steve acted up," Martin Landau said. "He was suspended for something so silly. But Bruce, who wanted him very badly, was fed up."
As a result, Hill's scenes in the remaining episodes were restricted to the opening scene where he got his order via a self-destructing tape recorder, the following scene, where he sifted through a dossier of agents to select his team and the apartment scene where he laid out the mission for the team. While Hill was happy with the reduced workload, and it was more realistic for the mastermind of such plots to remain out off the field of action, it didn't make for good television to have the star of the show limited to three short scenes.
The main beneficiary of Hill's status was Martin Landau, who played master of disguise Roblin Hand. "I wasn't about to say, 'No, don't give me the good part!' " Landau said. "I knew I was getting stuff Steve could have been doing. There was no reason that he couldn't, there was no makeup involved. I think the intention was to give some of that stuff to Steve."
As a result, Landau ended up with an Emmy nomination for his work during that first season and Hill lost his job to Peter Graves. Hill learned of the change in the same offhand way he had learned that CBS had picked up the series. While filming an episode, Hill read an article in Variety that said, "In an attempt to soup up its Neilsens, CBS-TV is switching the series to 10 P.M. Sundays next semester and plans are also underway to change leads, with Steven Hill to depart and Peter Graves taking over his spot. These changes should help Mission." The news took Hill by surprise. "He was not expecting it to occur," script supervisor Allen Greedy told author White. "I was amazed because it was such common knowledge that even I knew about it for at least a week previously."
Hill's friend and fellow actor Albert Paulsen summed it up: "He forced them to fire him, that's what happened."
After leaving Mission: Impossible, Hill also left acting and moved into a Jewish community in Rockland County, New York where he dabbled in writing and real estate. "I don't think an actor should act every single day," Hill said in an interview years later. "I don't think it's good for the so-called creative process. You must have periods when you leave the land fallow, let it revitalize itself."
Hill's retirement lasted until the acting bug bit him again in the mid-1970s. "They say you can't quit show business," he told a reporter in 1977. "It took ten years, but I could get it out of my system. So I called an agent and put him to work."
Hill had spent much of his "fallow" time studying The Bible and the Psalms of David. "I read them the way you read a script, visualizing the scenes," Hill told Chase. "When I came back to acting, I was able to work in an easier way than I ever did before."
Hill began his comeback playing Stanley Levinson in King, the 1978 TV miniseries based on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. By the early 1980s he was an in-demand character actor, appearing in such films as It's My Turn (with his future replacement on Law & Order, Dianne Wiest), Eyewitness, Yentl, Teachers, Legal Eagles, Brighton Beach Memoirs, The Firm and Billy Bathgate, for which he was nominated Best Supporting Actor by the New York Film Critics Circle. He also worked regularly in television. He had recurring roles in the soap opera One Life to Live and on the prime time series thirtysomething, where he played the father of central character Michael Steadman. Finally, he landed the role of Adam Schiff on Law & Order, for which Hill earned an Emmy nomination as Best Supporting Actor In a Dramatic Series in 1997.
Hill was somewhat surprised by the public acclaim he has earned from his work on Law & Order. "Schiff is much wiser than he was ever was to begin with and far more sophisticated than I ever saw him in the beginning," he told Kevin Courrier and Susan Green, authors of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion. "I get a kick out of that curmudgeon business. I used to love to see actors like that, like Monty Woolley. You love those older people who do that deliberately. I get a kick out of doing it and [the cast] get a kick out of it too, getting kicked by me."
Former Law & Order co-star Jill Hennessy says she learned first-hand of Hill's legendary status within the acting community in 1994. As she told authors Courrier and Green, "On the set of The Paper Robert Duvall said to me, 'I hear you work with Steven Hill on that Law & Order. He's the best working actor today, bar none.' "
Hill evidently had a better experience the second time around. "I think probably because of all years and time that has gone by, I enjoy my work far more than I ever did before," he once noted. "Certainly more than I did in my early years when it took a lot of effort to do the best job I wanted to do. Now it is more of a joy and much more exciting."