Being an actor made Sydney Pollack a better director. That was the repeated consensus of the stars he guided through some of the most popular films of the 1970s and '80s.
He was also a self-confessed hopeless romantic. "I couldn't do a film without a love story somewhere," he once told me during an interview.
Pollack, who died Monday at age 73, was a commercial filmmaker for the Hollywood machine, and he enjoyed working with big stars. And he worked with some of the biggest Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, Sidney Poitier, Harrison Ford, Al Pacino, Natalie Wood, Sally Field, Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, Nicole Kidman.
Like a number of other strong directors who labored in big-budget Hollywood movies, he could take genre films and make them better through sheer talent. But unlike, say, Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford, or even such contemporaries as Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese, Pollack didn't become identified with a certain kind of movie. He excelled at drama, action, period pieces and comedy.
Among his most popular films were "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969), "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972), "The Way We Were" (1973), "Three Days of the Condor" (1975), "The Electric Horseman" (1979), "Absence of Malice" (1981), "Tootsie" (1982), "Out of Africa" (1985) and "The Firm" (1993).
Though Pollack had a few flops along the way hey, so did Hitchcock and Ford his name on a film was considered bankable by the studios and reliable by the audience.
Pollack started out as an actor in episodic television, then in the early '60s began directing episodes of "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour," "The Fugitive" and others, with an eye toward feature films.
But his first big-screen assignment came as an actor in a Korean War B-movie, "War Hunt," where he met another actor making his film debut, Robert Redford. They formed a lifelong friendship and Redford would star in seven Pollack films, including two made in Utah, "Jeremiah Johnson" and "The Electric Horseman."
Pollack also helped Redford establish the Sundance Institute, and prior to that was on the board of the film festival that Sundance would eventually adopt. Redford once told me it was Pollack who suggested the festival move to Park City.
I had occasion to interview Pollack several times during the 1980s, for the Deseret News and on television. He always struck me as much more genuine and down-to-earth than most Hollywood movers and shakers. Pollack was also a grounded family man, married to the same woman for nearly 50 years, which in itself is a Hollywood anomaly.
In 1982, after a 20-year layoff, Pollack returned to acting with a prominent (some would say scene-stealing) role in "Tootsie," playing Dustin Hoffman's agent. But Hoffman told me it took some effort to talk him into it: "He said no about six times and finally I sent him roses. I said, 'Please be my agent, love, Dorothy.' I thought he was really good."
So did everyone else, but Pollack didn't do it again for another 10 years, when he showed up in three films in 1992: small roles in "The Player" and "Death Becomes Her," and a highly acclaimed co-starring role in Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives." Soon he was acting more than directing.But Pollack's legacy is as a filmmaker, producing and directing some of the most popular films of the past 40 years. And movie fans are the beneficiaries.