One of the original fifty admitted to the first class at the Actor’s Studio in 1947 (along with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift), he was thought by some to be the comer in the group. Despite steady work, he never came close to achieving that level of iconography.
He was certainly held back, in his middle years, by a devotion to Orthodox Judaism that kept him from working regular theater hours and even, occasionally, filming hours. He left steady work as the original star of Mission Impossible after its first season and walked into a ten-year “retirement.” When he emerged again in the late seventies, it was to play the patriarchal roles that led, finally, to a ten- year stint on the original Law and Order, where his DA and Jerry Orbach’s beat cop provided the sour mash whiskey notes that balanced the show’s tendency towards wine-and-cheese sermonizing. For that alone, his memory should be blessed.
I’m sure he gave plenty of other fine performances, though I’m not all that familiar with his filmography.
I want to note his passing, though, for a single five-minute scene he played with Christine Lahti in Running On Empty. It’s a running theme of this blog that we never walked away from ’68 and never will. I’ve never encountered anything that drove this unpleasant idea home as forcefully as that scene, which consists of Lahti’s on-the-run radical daughter meeting with Hill’s unforgiving, old guard, father, whom she hasn’t seen in twenty years, to beg a favor for her son. It’s one of the most devastating moments in any American narrative and makes the rest of the very fine film around it, not to mention the last thirty years of American history, fade to black. If we still had a culture, two actors of such quality would have had a chance to play a hundred more like it. As it stands, one will have to do.
Geyn mit got.