Steven Hill, Character Actor of Screen and Stage, Dies at 94

News   Steven Hill, Character Actor of Screen and Stage, Dies at 94
The Law & Order star was one of the first students at the Actors Studio.
Steven Hill Desilu Productions

Steven Hill, a seasoned character actor who lent depth and integrity to dozens of parts on stage, television and film, but is perhaps best known as Adam Schiff, the world-weary district attorney on Law & Order, died August 23 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He was 94.

Mr. Hill play the pessimistic, but realistic Schiff for ten seasons, from 1990 to 2000. He was typically seen for only a couple minutes each episode, jousting with his more animated underling Sam Waterston about cases and legal strategies (and usually winning with a few choice words). With his slumped posture, whispered delivery and laconic style, his performance suggested the toll a career in the compromised and compromising legal system took on a man of principle. His character was loosely based on real New York District Attorney Robert Morganthau. Mr. Hill was twice nominated for an Emmy Award for his performance.

Steven Hill’s first brush with television fame came in 1966 when he was cast as Dan Briggs, the original leader of the special ops unit depicted in Mission: Impossible. But he left after one season because the shooting schedule clashed with his Orthodox Jewish beliefs, which would not permit him to work on the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sundown Friday and continues until sundown Saturday.

As the first season went on, Mr. Hill repeatedly clashed with the show’s producers, and his part was subsequently diminished, with Martin Landau taking up the slack in later episodes. He was not invited back for a second season, replaced by actor Peter Graves, who remains the performer most closely associated with the hit series. The disappearance of Briggs was never explained in the series.

His dismissal from Mission: Impossible was a serious personal setback. He left acting in 1967 and joined a Jewish community in Rockland County, NY, working in real estate.

"I don't think an actor should act every single day,” he told Patrick J. White, in The Complete "Mission: Impossible" Dossier. “I don't think it's good for the so-called creative process. You must have periods when you leave the land fallow, let it revitalize itself."

Up until then, he had had a fairly robust career. He made his Broadway debut in 1946 in A Flag is Born. The following year, he was one of the first crop of actors accepted into the newly formed Actors Studio. Among his fellow students were Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Julie Harris. During those early years, many observers talked of Hill and Brando in the same breath.

During the ‘50s, he appeared such notable productions as the war comedy Mister Roberts and the Clifford Odets drama The Country Girl, playing Bernie Dodd, one of the three leads. In 1961, he played Sigmund Freud opposite Kim Stanley in the play A Far Country.

Playing the Jewish Freud in A Far Country caused him to think more deeply about his religion. Soon, he was adhering to the strictures of Orthodox Judaism, keeping kosher and declining to perform during the Sabbath. This decision effectively ended his career in the theatre, in which Friday night and Saturday afternoon performances are standard.

Mr. Hill was also a regular in the early days of live television, performing on Actor’s Studio, Suspense, Schlitz Playhouse, Goodyear Playhouse, Playwrights ’56, Playhouse 90, Sunday Showcase and many other shows.

When Steven Hill returned to acting, he was much changed, having aged during the previous decades into a figure barely recognizable as the Hill seen in the 1960s. Yet, he found he was still in demand. He quickly won roles in 1980s movies such as It’s My Turn, Eyewitness, Rich and Famous, Yentl, Teachers, Raw Deal, Legal Eagles, Heartburn, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Running on Empty. He won his best reviews in years playing Otta “Abbadabba” Berman, mobster Dutch Schultz’s wizardly accountant in the 1990 film version of the E.L. Doctorow mob tale Billy Bathgate. He was nominated for a New York Film Critics Circle Award and National Society of Film Critics Award for the performance.

Shortly after that decade-long spurt of film activity, he took the job on Law & Order and stayed there, doing little else in the way of acting.

Steven Hill was born Solomon Krakovsky on Feb. 22, 1922, in Seattle, to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. He served in the Naval Reserve from 1940 to 1944.

A marriage to Selma Stern in 1951 bore four children but ended in divorce. He married Rachel Hill, who survives him, in 1967 and had five more children.

In almost all his later roles, Mr. Hill played a figure or authority, and typically one that seemed to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Asking during the run of Law & Order why his work was earning acclaim, he said, “I guess it’s because what I'm doing in my work today is an accumulation of all the blood, sweat and tears went through in this business.”

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