LOS ANGELES — Sydney Pollack, the Academy Award-winning director of Out of Africa who achieved acclaim making popular, mainstream movies with A-list stars, including The Way We Were and Tootsie, died Monday (May 26, 2008). He was 73.
Mr. Pollack, who also was a producer and actor, died of cancer at his home in Los Angeles.
His long career reached prominence in the 1970s and 1980s. Mr. Pollack, who called himself "Mr. Mainstream," was wildly successful at moviemaking with mass appeal but drew mixed reviews during a prolific career. He was known for what New York Times film critic Janet Maslin once described as "his broadly commercial instincts and penchant for all-star casts."
"Sydney Pollack has made some of the most influential and best-remembered films of the last three decades," film scholar Jeanine Basinger said recently. "He kept in step with the times. … He had a very sharp political sensibility and a keen sense of what the issues of his world were."
His best-remembered work could be provocative, timely and sensitively crafted. Tootsie (1982) was hilarious and underscored aspects of the feminist struggle. The taut spy story Three Days of the Condor (1975) captured Nixon-era paranoia. They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), though set at a Depression-era dance marathon, resonated with young ticketbuyers who saw the rigged contest as a reflection of modern society.
Mr. Pollack's movies often emphasized the loner at conflict with society, whether a fur trapper in Jeremiah Johnson (1972) or a cowboy who tries to recover his soul after selling out in The Electric Horseman (1979) with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.
He saw Redford as his ideal collaborator and cast him in seven movies because of what he considered his "very internal, rather understated" acting style as well as a dark undercurrent he found appealing. Redford returned the compliment, telling Film Comment magazine, "Sydney's the one director that seems to read me best. … Basically he's a romantic."
After launching his show business career as an actor and acting teacher in New York City in the 1950s, Mr. Pollack, who was born in Lafayette, Ind., moved west in the early '60s and began directing episodic television before turning to films.
Beginning with The Slender Thread, a 1965 drama starring Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft, Mr. Pollack was credited with directing 20 films. He had a reputation for being a painstaking craftsman — "relentless and meticulous," screenwriter and friend Robert Towne once said.
"His films have a lyrical quality like great music, and the timing is impeccable," cinematographer Owen Roizman, who shot five films directed by Mr. Pollack, said in 2005. "He is never satisfied. … His passion is contagious."
Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin said the hallmark of Mr. Pollack's career "has been intelligence, both in his approach and his selection of subject matter."
"Good, bad or in between, his films at the very least respected their audience," Maltin said.
Out of Africa, a 1985 drama starring Redford and Meryl Streep, earned Mr. Pollack two Academy Awards: as director and as producer of the film, which also won the best picture Oscar.
Mr. Pollack received a best director Oscar nomination for Tootsie. In the comedy, Dustin Hoffman stars as Michael Dorsey, an unemployed actor who revives his career by transforming himself into a woman. In the process of masquerading as a woman, Dorsey becomes a better man. The making of the film was marked by creative dissension between Mr. Pollack and Hoffman.
Mr. Pollack spoke of his preference for working with big stars in an interview with the New York Times in 1982. "Stars are like thoroughbreds. Yes, it's a little more dangerous with them. They are more temperamental. You have to be careful because you can be thrown. But when they do what they do best — whatever it is that's made them a star — it's really exciting."
As an actor, Mr. Pollack appeared in a number of films, including Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, Robert Altman's The Player, and Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. He also turned up in guest roles on TV series such as Frasier, Will & Grace and The Sopranos.
"I don't care much about acting," he said in 2002. "It's more about watching other directors work."
Information from the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.