Actor, Filmmaker Sydney Pollack Dies at 73 Sydney Pollack died Monday of cancer at his home in Los Angeles. He was best known for directing The Way We Were, Out of Africa, Tootsie and Three Days of the Condor, among many other movies. But he began his career as an actor.
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Actor, Filmmaker Sydney Pollack Dies at 73

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Actor, Filmmaker Sydney Pollack Dies at 73

Actor, Filmmaker Sydney Pollack Dies at 73

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This morning, we're remembering the life and work of filmmaker Sydney Pollack. He died yesterday of cancer at his home in Los Angeles. He was 73 years old. Pollack was best known for directing "The Way We Were," "Out of Africa," "Tootsie" and "Three Days of the Condor." He was also a producer and an actor. Pollack appeared in Woody Allen's "Manhattan" and Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut." Howie Movshovitz of Colorado Public Radio has this appreciation. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Sydney Pollack acted in Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives," not "Manhattan."]

HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ: Sydney Pollack began his career as an actor, but in 1961, he found himself on the set of "The Young Savages" as a dialogue coach. His work attracted the attention of the film's veteran star, Burt Lancaster. In a 1990 interview with WHYY's FRESH AIR, Pollack remembered being called into Lancaster's office.

Mr. SYDNEY POLLACK (Film Director, Producer, Actor): He said, you know, you ought to be a director. You really should. What do you want to be told what to do when you can be telling everybody what to do for? That was the way he put it.

And he picked up the phone, and he called Lew Wasserman and said Lew, I got a kid here, I don't know if he can direct, but I think he's talented. I want you to talk to him - and I'm quoting verbatim now - and he said, in any case, he can't be worse than those bums you got working for you now.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

MOVSHOVITZ: Wasserman, the head of Universal Pictures, put Pollack under the wing of a producer, and before long, Pollack was directing TV. He made his first feature film, "The Slender Thread," in 1965. Film historian Patricia Erens says he followed it with 20 more that ran the gamut of genres.

Ms. PATRICIA ERENS (Film Historian): To me, he is one of the last of the great studio directors that could do just about anything, and he did. He made Westerns early on, action thrillers, melodramas, love stories. He's not a great auteur that had a unique vision or visual style, so you don't come away thinking about him as a director. You come away thinking about the film.

MOVSHOVITZ: Erens adds that Pollack did more than repeat the conventional Hollywood forms. He gave them heft by giving them a twist.

Ms. ERENS: "The Way We Were" is not just a great, sad love story, but it's about the Hollywood 10 and blacklisting.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Way We Were")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) This isn't college. This is grown-up politics, Katie, and it's stupid and dangerous.

Ms. BARBRA STREISAND (Actor): (As Katie Morosky) What are you telling me to do, sit by and shut up just because it's dangerous?

Unidentified Man #1: I'm telling you it's a waste. That's what I'm telling you, and that those men and their families, they're only going to get hurt, and there's nothing that's going to change - nothing. And after jail, after five or six years of bad blood, when it's practical for some fascist producer to hire some communist writer to save his ass because his hit movie's in trouble, he'll do it. They'll both do it. They'll make movies. They'll have dinner. They'll play tennis. They'll make passes at each other's wives. Now what in the hell did anybody ever go to jail for?

Ms. ERENS: So there's a background of politics that's in the film. Same in "Out of Africa," about colonialists, or even an early film like "Jeremiah Johnson," which gave us a new image of the West. So he has a way of taking traditional Hollywood genres and bringing more out of them.

Mr. MICHAEL HENRY WILSON (Filmmaker): He would never do a film, a political film directly. He didn't like (unintelligible). He liked the metaphor.

MOVSHOVITZ: Michael Henry Wilson, a French-born filmmaker and friend of Pollack's, planned to shoot a documentary about Pollack before the director fell ill. Wilson says that Pollack returned to several themes over and over throughout his career.

Mr. WILSON: There's a line that you hear in practically all of Sydney's films. It's I'm going home. And so many of his films are about finding yourself, finding your roots, finding your home, and the journey is really what a lot of his films are about.

(Soundbite of movie, "Jeremiah Johnson")

Unidentified Man #2: Which way are you headed, Jeremiah?

Mr. ROBERT REDFORD (Actor): (As Jeremiah Johnson) Canada, maybe. I hear there's land there a man has never seen.

Mr. WILSON: There's one line that also I want to mention, because practically every other film of Sydney has it. You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth? It's a good line. You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?

MOVSHOVITZ: In combining issues with entertainment, Sydney Pollack drew on his first job in films, says historian Patricia Erens.

Ms. ERENS: His huge contribution is his ability to bring out the very best performance from his actors.

MOVSHOVITZ: Erens says a lot of that had to do with Pollack's own experience as an actor. He continued to take small parts throughout his career, sometimes reluctantly, as he told NPR in 1993, when talking about playing the agent for Dustin Hoffman's cross-dressing character in "Tootsie."

Mr. POLLACK: I had a very good actor all set to play that part, and he kept saying I want you to play that part. And I kept saying Dustin, you're crazy. I've got enough to do. I haven't acted in years, and I don't want to do it. And finally, he started sending me flowers, dozens of roses, saying please be my agent. Love, Dorothy.

And I really ended up doing it basically to mollify him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of film, "Tootsie")

Mr. POLLACK: (As George Fields) Nobody will hire you.

Mr. DUSTIN HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Michael Dorsey) Are you saying that nobody in New York will work with me?

Mr. POLLACK: (As Agent) No, no. That's too limiting. Nobody in Hollywood wants to work with you, either. I can't even send you up for a commercial. You played a tomato for 30 seconds, they went a half a day over schedule because you wouldn't sit down.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Dorsey) Yes, it wasn't logical.

Mr. POLLACK: (As Agent) You were a tomato. A tomato doesn't have logic. A tomato can't even move.

MOVSHOVITZ: Sydney Pollack in person was the antithesis of Tootsie's brusque agent, says Pollack's friend, Michael Henry Wilson.

Mr. WILSON: Sydney was probably the nicest person you could meet in that business, a true straight-shooter, also someone who nurtured doubts about what he was doing, was never satisfied with what he was doing and was incredibly nervous each time a new film opened and could not believe that some of his films were so successful. He was so humble and honest.

MOVSHOVITZ: Sydney Pollack was directing the HBO dramatic film "Recount," about the 2000 election, before illness forced him to abandon the project. For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.

(Soundbite of music)

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