Sydney Pollack, who has died aged 73, was an astonishingly versatile director. Look through his filmography and what leaps out is its diversity. Whether documentaries about architects (Sketches of Frank Gehry), old-fashioned Hollywood weepies (Out of Africa), political thrillers (Three Days of the Condor), gender-bending comedies (Tootsie), romance (Sabrina), gruelling Depression-era dramas (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?), or westerns (Jeremiah Johnson), Pollack had every base covered. He was also active as a producer and made many scene-stealing cameos as a character actor.
Like his close friend Anthony Minghella (with whom he ran Mirage Enterprises), Pollack was a liberal humanist – a director who specialised in intelligent, well-crafted mainstream movies which were not ashamed to trade in emotion but often also had a political edge.
To become a film-maker, he had made a remarkable journey. Pollack was born and raised in Indiana. His father was a semi-professional middleweight boxer turned pharmacist. He had no connections in film or theatre but as a teenager had left Indiana to seek his fortune in New York.
"I got out of high school when I was 17 and I went to my father. I said that I really didn't want to go to medical school. (He couldn't afford to send me there anyway.) I said, give me a couple of years. I've saved a bit of money and I just would like to go to New York – I had just seen it in movies," Pollack told me when I interviewed him in 2002.
Pollack told the story of his success in New York as if it was a matter of lucky accidents. He had found an ad for an acting school by chance. There, he met "the guy who changed my life", the legendary acting coach Sanford Meisner. He studied hard, even taking dance lessons with Martha Graham (an unlikely image given that Pollack was a thickset Midwesterner). Between terms, he worked on a lumber truck. Meisner eventually hired him as an assistant. "What I was really doing without knowing it was learning a basis for directing," he said of his time as Meisner's apprentice.
Meisner, like Pollack's other mentor, Burt Lancaster, quickly recognised Pollack's ability and work ethic. "He was a big, big star and a very intimidating man," Pollack recalled of Lancaster, who spotted him working as a dialogue coach on The Young Savages after Pollack had been lured to Hollywood by John Frankenheimer. Lancaster told Pollack he should stop "horsing around" trying to be an actor and direct instead. Lancaster introduced him to agent and studio boss Lew Wasserman, who let him direct "a very bad television show", setting his directorial career in motion.
Actors clearly revered Pollack. Paul Newman, Harrison Ford, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman all worked with him. His collaboration with Robert Redford was especially fruitful; they acted together in War Hunt in 1962 and went on to make such pictures as Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, Out of Africa and Havana. "We did films in our 30s, our 40s and our 50s. I've grown old with him," Pollack recalled.
Perhaps his versatility counted against him. Pollack was so active as a producer, actor and talent scout that he did not direct as many features as might have been expected. Pollack admitted he was frustrated by the gaps between his movies. But he took great pride in supporting young film-makers such as Steve Zallian (Searching For Bobby Fischer) and Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys), giving them the chance that Lancaster and Wasserman had afforded him. He also helped Kenneth Branagh, Ang Lee and Tom Tykwer make their first US movies.
The best of Pollack's own work will stand the test of time. Tootsie is an acknowledged classic while Three Days of the Condor is one of the best thrillers of the Watergate era.
Tributes from Hollywood
"Sydney made the world a little better, movies a little better and even dinner a little better."
"Having the opportunity to know Sydney and work with him was a great gift in my life. He was a good friend and a phenomenal director and I will cherish every moment that I ever spent with him."
"He knew how to tell a love story. And he was a very good friend, someone I even shared secrets with."
"Throughout the years, unpretentious and never condescending, he shared with me what he loved about family, storytelling, food, flying and a great bottle of vino. He was a Renaissance man and a great friend. I will miss him dearly."
MICHAEL HENRY WILSON
"There's a line that you hear in practically all of Sydney's films – "I'm going home" – and so many of his films are about finding yourself, finding your roots, finding your home. The journey is really what a lot of his films are about."Reuse content