Oscar-winner Hal Ashby, who directed the 1970s classics "Coming Home," "Being There" and "Harold and Maude," was remembered upon his death as "a genius for finding the humor and beauty in the most unlikely places."
Ashby died of liver cancer at age 59 at his home Tuesday as he was preparing to direct a film of Truman Capote's "Hand Carved Coffins," said his business manager, Larry Reynolds.Colleagues praised Ashby as a director who created visually striking images, gave his star actors and fanciful stories the stage, while he graciously disappeared into the shadows.
Along with "Coming Home," the anti-war Vietnam story starring Jane Fonda and Jon Voight, Ashby turned out a string of highly individualistic and idiosyncratic hits during the 1970s. They included "Shampoo," "The Last Detail," "Harold and Maude," "Being There" and "Bound for Glory."
From Jack Nicholson's foul-mouthed sailor in "The Last Detail" to Warren Beatty's oversexed hair stylist in "Shampoo," Ashby encouraged critically acclaimed performances.
At his best, he seemed to understand instinctively themes that touched audiences.
His 1972 "Harold and Maude" became a cult classic that captured the anxiety of becoming an adult while "Coming Home," a multiple Academy Award-winner in 1978, gripped a nation ready to re-examine Vietnam.
"Coming Home," a story of a paraplegic's return from Vietnam, won Oscars for Fonda and Voight. Bruce Dern, playing a traumatized Marine officer, was nominated for best supporting actor, as was Ashby for best director.
Even with serious issues, Ashby found laughter.
"Hal had a genius for finding the humor and beauty in the most unlikely places," said Bud Cort, who starred in "Harold and Maude," the black satire about a suicidal young man who falls for a geriatric swinger played by the late Ruth Gordon.
"He created an atmosphere of trust and affection that was unparalleled for me," Cort said. "I feel blessed to have known Hal. He had a lot of love to give, and we're all the richer for it."
In the mid-1970s, Ashby was one of Hollywood's more consistent artists, directing Peter Sellers as a slightly retarded gardener elevated to the role of presidential adviser in "Being There," and David Carradine as folk singer Woody Guthrie in "Bound for Glory."
Toward the end of his career, Ashby's fortunes waned as he turned out such undistinguished features as "The Slugger's Wife," "Lookin' to Get Out" and "Eight Million Ways to Die." Early in the 1980s, he shrugged off rumors that he and his career were dying.
"I can't recall the last thing I heard about myself that was true," he said in a 1982 interview.
Ashby described himself as an optimist. "I basically have a very positive philosophy on life, because I don't feel I have anything to lose. Most things will turn out OK."
"He was a gentle human being and his genteel humor will be missed," said actor Randy Quaid, who starred as a slow-witted Navy prisoner on the way to the brig in "The Last Detail." Quaid also was featured in "Bound for Glory."
Ashby was also a gifted editor, winning a 1967 Academy Award for his work on the Southern-racial drama "In The Heat of the Night," directed by Norman Jewison and starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger.
His editing collaboration with Jewison also was seen in "The Cincinnati Kid," and "The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming."
Ashby, who was born in 1929 in Ogden, Utah, hitchhiked to Southern California in 1950. He soon became an apprentice editor at the Republic and Disney studios. He later became an assistant to editor Robert Swink, collaborating on the editing of "The Big Country," "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told."
He directed his first film, "The Landlord," with Beau Bridges and Pearl Bailey in 1970.
Ashby is survived by a sister, Ardith Thompson, who lives in Ogden, and a brother, Jack. A memorial service by the Directors Guild of America was planned for Friday.