'Sting' Director George Roy Hill Dies

George Roy Hill at 1974 Academy Awards, where he won an oscar for Best Achievement in Directing for the film "The Sting." CBS/AP

George Roy Hill, the independent-minded former Marine pilot who directed Paul Newman and Robert Redford in both "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting," died Friday. He was 81.

Hill died at his Manhattan apartment of complications from Parkinson's disease, said Hill's son, George Roy Hill III.

The Redford-Newman films brought Hill awards — "The Sting" won the Oscar for best picture and director — as well as the distinction of being the only director to have two films among the all-time top-10 moneymakers at that time.

His ability to communicate the sense of what he wanted to do was unique," said Edwin S. Brown, his business manager for 35 years. "He took all of the world seriously except himself."

"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969) instilled new life to the fading western genre and added a fresh twist on the familiar Hole in the Wall Gang saga.

Instead of playing Butch (Newman) and Sundance (Redford) as tough outlaws, Hill and screenwriter William Goldman made them free spirits for whom robbing banks was a lark. The film received Academy nominations for best picture and best director, and it won four awards, including best song, "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

"The Sting" (1973) reunited Newman and Redford as con men who devise a complicated plot to fleece a vicious gangster (Robert Shaw). The film was highly stylized, especially with the ragtime piano of Scott Joplin, as interpreted by Marvin Hamlisch. The nearly forgotten Joplin was restored to national prominence.

Hill later commented that he sought "a Saturday Evening Post style ... so I put in chapter headings with the pages turning, and Saturday Evening Post graphics. ... The other thing was I consciously tried to imitate was the flat camera style they used in the old Warner Bros. gangster movies. They shot very flat, and there was very little camera movement."

"The Sting" was nominated for 10 Academy awards and won seven, including best picture, director, original screenplay by David S. Ward, and score. In accepting the Oscar, Hill gave his fellow directors advice: Hire the same people who worked with him on "The Sting."

"It helps, believe me," he said.

The two films were not universally liked. Critic Pauline Kael panned him for emphasizing the male relationship between Newman and Redford. "What am I supposed to do?" he responded. "Stop the action in an action picture just to drag some women in?"

Born Dec. 20, 1921, into a well-off Minneapolis newspaper family, the young George Roy Hill loved both classical music and adventure. He haunted the Cedar Airport outside Minneapolis, watching and listening to the barnstorming aviators, many of them veterans of World War I. At 16 he became a full-fledged pilot.

After graduating from Blake, a Hopkins, Minn., prep school, Hill studied music at Yale University, partly under the famed composer Paul Hindesmith. He sang for the glee club and the Whiffenpoofs, and headed a drama group. Upon graduating in 1943, he enlisted in the Marines and served as a transport pilot in the South Pacific.

After a stint as a reporter at a Texas newspaper, he used the G.I. Bill to attend Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, earning a bachelor's degree in literature in 1949.

Back in the United States, he earned good reviews in an off-Broadway play, Strindberg's "The Creditors," with Beatrice Arthur. He then toured as an actor with Margaret Webster's Shakespeare repertory company.

A role in a radio soap opera was interrupted by the Korean War. Hill was recalled to Marine duty, and he served for 18 months at a training center in North Carolina, emerging as a major. He used the experience as the basis for a TV drama, "My Brother's Keeper," which appeared on Kraft Television Theater, with him in the cast.

Hill became a leading figure in live television, earning Emmys for writing and directing a Titanic story, "A Night to Remember." Among his other achievements: "Billy Budd," "The Helen Morgan Story" and "Judgment at Nuremberg" (before the film version). In 1957, Hill shifted Broadway, and he directed the Pulitzer Prize winner "Look Homeward, Angel," as well as "The Gang's All Here," "Greenwillow" and Tennessee Williams' "A Period of Adjustment," which provided Hill's shift to Hollywood. He directed the film version, which gave Jane Fonda her first major role.

During his career in films, Hill became noted for defying studio control and tackling challenging material. His movies included Lillian Hellman's play, "Toys in the Attic" (1965), James Michener's sprawling "Hawaii" (1966), and three complex novels Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1972), John Irving's "The World According to Garp" (1982), and John Le Carre's "The Little Drummer Girl" (1984).

Close to Hill's heart was "The Great Waldo Pepper" (1975), a story of a barnstorming pilot. Despite the star power of Robert Redford, it was not a success. Nor was "Slap Shot" (1977), a coruscating view of minor league ice hockey starring Paul Newman. Swearing on the screen was new, and audiences and critics were turned off by the abundance of locker-room language.

Hill's career as a director ended quietly in 1988 with a mild Chevy Chase comedy, "Funny Farm." He quit Hollywood to teach at Yale.

Hill and Louisa Horton met while they were touring in Shakespearian repertory and married April 7, 1951. They later divorced. Hill is survived by two sons, two daughters and 12 grandchildren.

Hill's pastimes included piloting his open-cockpit Waco, playing piano and reading. "Just as I play nothing but Bach for pleasure," he remarked, "so do I read nothing but history."


  • John Esterbrook

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