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In Memory: Sydney Pollack

By Roger Ebert

Sydney Pollack, who directed some of the best mainstream films of the last 40 years and acted in some of the others, is dead at 73. He died Monday of cancer at home, in Pacific Palisades, according to a friend.

Born in 1934 in Lafayette, Indiana, the son of Russian immigrants, Pollack was encouraged to try acting by his high school drama teacher in South Bend. "From almost the first time I stepped on a stage," he told me, "I knew that was what I wanted to do."

He went to New York to study acting under the famed teacher Sandy Meisner, taught acting at Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse, moved into television, and stepped behind the camera. Although his main occupation from the 1960s on would be directing, he never lost his love for acting, and had more credits (30) as an actor than as a director (21). He had top billing in Woody Allen's "Husbands And Wives," and most recently was seen as the powerful, authoritative head of the law firm in "Michael Clayton," and in "Made of Honor" playing Patrick Dempsey's multi-divorced wealthy magnate of a father.

A tall, handsome, immediately charismatic man, he was a director most actors loved to work with, because when he talked to them about acting he knew what he was talking about. He and Robert Redford were each other's favorite director and actor, working together seven times. Indeed, in "This Property is Condemned" (1966), he was instrumental in establishing Redford as a star.

“I am not a visual innovator," Pollack told me shortly before the release of his "Out Of Africa," (1985), which won seven Oscars, including best picture and best director, and was nominated for four more. "I haven’t broken any new ground in the form of a film. My strength is with actors. I think I’m good at working with them to get the best performances, at seeing what it is that they have and that the story needs.”

To mention the titles of some of his films is to stir smiles, affection, nostalgia, respect: The Depression-era drama "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969); the epic Western "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972); the Redford-Streisand love story "The Way We Were" (1973); the CIA thriller "Three Days of the Condor" (1975); Robert Mitchum against Japanese mobsters in "The Yakuza" (1975), Redford and Jane Fonda in "The Electric Horseman" (1979); Paul Newman as the maligned son of a gangster in "Absence of Malice" (1981); hungry actor Dustin Hoffman in drag in "Tootsie" (1982), Redford with Meryl Streep in "Out of Africa" (1985); Tom Cruise as a lawyer in "The Firm" (1993).

When I invited the great cinematographer Owen Roizman to join me in analyzing a film using the shot-by-shot approach at the Hawaii Film Festival, he choose Pollack's "Havana," pointing out the director's instinct for compositions that helped underline the point of a scene. Instead of discussing the film's visuals as representing what he himself did, Roizman often said things like, "Look how Sydney handles this."

Although he got on well with most actors, he had well-publicized differences with Dustin Hoffman during "Tootsie," for which they both got Oscar nominations. They actually acted together in the movie, with Pollack playing his dubious agent, and Hoffman a desperate actor who says he can play tall, he can play short, and "nobody does vegetables like me. I did an evening of vegetables off-Broadway. I did the best tomato, the best cucumber -- I did an endive salad that knocked the critics on their ass."

Hoffman persuaded Pollack that he should cast himself in the role, and they worked on the scene together. "I think it benefitted from the experiences both of us have had in that situation," Pollack smiled.

He is survived by his wife since 1958, Claire, and two of their three children, Rachel and Rebecca. A son, Steven, died in an airplane crash in 1993.

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