Hill as Dan Briggs.
February 24, 1922
Seattle, Washington, USA
|Years active||1949–67, 1977–2000|
|Spouse(s)||Selma Stern (1951–1964)
Steven Hill (born February 24, 1922) is a retired American film and television actor. His two better-known roles are District Attorney Adam Schiff on the NBC TV drama series Law & Order, whom he portrayed for ten seasons (1990–2000), and Dan Briggs, the original team leader of the Impossible Missions Force on CBS's television series Mission: Impossible, whom he portrayed in the initial season of the show (1966–67).
Early life and career
Hill was born Solomon Krakovsky in Seattle, Washington. After serving four years in the Naval Reserve, Hill made his first Broadway stage appearance in Ben Hecht's A Flag Is Born in 1946, which also featured a young Marlon Brando. Hill says his big break came when he landed a small part in the hit Broadway show Mister Roberts. "The director, Joshua Logan, thought I had some ability, and he let me create one of the scenes," said Hill. "So, I improvised dialog and it went in the show. That was my first endorsement. It gave me tremendous encouragement to stay in the business." Hill said this was a thrilling time in his life when, fresh out of the Navy, he played the hapless sailor Stefanowski. "You could almost smell it from the very first reading that took place; this is going to be an overwhelming hit," said Hill. "We all felt it and experienced it and were convinced of it, and we were riding the crest of a wave from the very first day of rehearsals."
In 1947, Hill joined Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Julie Harris, amongst others as one of the 50 fortunate applicants (out of approximately 700 interviewed) to be accepted by the newly created Actors Studio.
Hill made his film debut in 1950 in Lady Without a Passport. He then re-enlisted in the Navy in 1952 for two years and, when he completed his service, resumed his acting in earnest. Strasberg later said, "Steven Hill is considered one of the finest actors America has ever produced". When he was starting out as an actor, Hill sought out roles that had a social purpose. "Later, I learned that show business is about entertaining," he says. "So, I've had to reconcile my idealistic feelings with reality".
Hill was particularly busy in the so-called "Golden Age" of live TV drama, appearing in such offerings as The Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1960, where he portrayed Bartolomeo Vanzetti. "When I first became an actor, there were two young actors in New York: Marlon Brando and Steven Hill," said Martin Landau. "A lot of people said that Steven would have been the one, not Marlon. He was legendary. Nuts, volatile, mad, and his work was exciting".
In 1961, Hill had an unusual experience when he appeared as Sigmund Freud on Broadway in Henry Denker's A Far Country, portraying Freud at the age of 35. On April 12, 1961, Hill was stricken with a virus the night of a sold-out performance for the Masters Children's Center of Dobbs Ferry. As a result, the producers decided to cancel the performance just as the curtain was about to go up. Among the notables in the audience were Joseph P. Kennedy, Jack Benny, and Richard Rodgers. The audience was invited to exchange its ticket stubs for other performances. The understudy was not ready to replace Hill, so Alfred Ryder, the play's director, stepped into the role of Freud for one performance.
In 1961, he was cast as B.E. Langard in the episode "Act of Piracy" of the ABC series, Adventures in Paradise, starring Gardner McKay. He appeared in the original Robert Stack ABC/Desilu crime drama, The Untouchables episode "Jack 'Legs' Diamond" giving a compelling cold evil performance as the eponymous character, and a similar sinister role as a bedridden (following an accident), ruthlessly manipulative millionaire in 'The White Knight,' a 1966 black-and-white third season episode of The Fugitive, starring David Janssen.
Hill was the original leader of the Impossible Missions Force, Dan Briggs in the series Mission: Impossible beginning in 1966. The phrase "Good morning, Mr. Briggs..." was a fixture early in each episode as it began a tape recording he retrieved which detailed the task he must accomplish. However, he left the show in 1967 after the end of the first season. As one of the few Orthodox Jewish actors working in Hollywood, he made it clear in advance of production that he was not able to work on the Sabbath (i.e., sundown Friday to dusk Saturday), and that he would leave the set every Friday before sundown. However, despite Hill's advance warnings, the show's producers were unprepared for his rigid adherence to the Sabbath, and on at least one occasion Hill left the set while an episode was still in the midst of filming. The producers used a number of ways of reducing the role of Hill's character Dan Briggs whereby his character would only obtain and hand out the mission details at the start of certain episodes being unable to take further part as he was known to people they would encounter (used at least three times), or Briggs would need to don a disguise and another actor would then play his role incognito until the conclusion of the mission (and episode) when Briggs peeled off a face mask. On other occasions Briggs would be waiting to pick up the team at the end. Usually Martin Landau's character (Rollin Hand) would take over as the team leader for missions in Briggs' absence, Landau being initially a "special guest star" for the first season, not even included in the show's original opening credits.
According to Desilu executive Herb Solow, once William Shatner burst into his office, claiming "Steve asked me how many Jews worked on Star Trek. He was recruiting a prayer group of ten guys to worship together on top of the studio's highest building and only had six Jews so far from Mission. He asked if I would come and bring Nimoy and Justman and you."
Hill was briefly suspended from the show near the end of the season, during the production of episode no. 23 (entitled "Action!", where for the only time Barbara Bain's character Cinnamon Carter obtained the mission via the taped instructions, although Landau's character Rollin Hand then led the team). The suspension was imposed after he refused to climb the rafters via a soundstage staircase as was called for in the script. This incident was ostensibly unrelated to any religious observances of Hill's. Consequently, Hill was written out of that episode and when he returned to Mission: Impossible for the five remaining episodes of the season, his role was severely reduced. Hill was not asked to return for season 2, and was replaced as the show's star by Peter Graves. No onscreen explanation was ever given regarding Dan Briggs' later absence from the series.
Hiatus and return to acting
After appearing in Mission: Impossible, Hill did no acting work for the following ten years. Hill had what he calls "tremendous periods of unemployment" in his career. "What we have here is a story of profound instability and impermanence," he said of his own career. "This is what you learn at the beginning in show business; then it gets planted in you forever". Hill left acting in 1967 and moved to a Jewish community in Rockland County, New York where he worked in writing and real estate. Patrick J. White, in The Complete "Mission: Impossible" Dossier, quoted Hill as having said later, "I don't think an actor should act every single day. 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." After ten years, he was ready to begin acting again. "They say you can't quit show business," he said in 1977. "It took ten years, but I couldn't get it out of my system. So I called an agent and put him to work."
Hill returned to work in the 1980s and 1990s, playing parental and authority-figure roles in such films as Yentl (1983), Garbo Talks (1984), Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, Heartburn (1986), Running on Empty (1988), Billy Bathgate (1991) and The Firm (1993). Hill also appeared as a mob kingpin in Raw Deal (1986), an action vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hill played New York District Attorney Bower in Legal Eagles, a 1986 film, foreshadowing his appearance as Adam Schiff in Law & Order.
Law & Order
Hill is best known as Adam Schiff in the NBC TV drama series Law & Order, a part that he played for ten seasons (1990–2000). Hill's character is loosely modeled after the real former district attorney of New York, Robert Morgenthau and it is reported that Morgenthau was a fan of the character. Hill says playing Adam Schiff is the hardest role he's ever had because of all the legal jargon he has to learn. "It's like acting in a second language," says Hill. Hill adds that he agrees with the show's philosophy, saying that "there's a certain positive statement in this show. So much is negative today. The positive must be stated to rescue us from pandemonium. To me it lies in that principle: law and order." Hill earned another Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actor In a Dramatic Series in 1997. At the time of his departure, Hill was the longest-serving member of the original cast (his tenure was twice that of runner up Chris Noth); by the time the series was cancelled in 2010, Hill was the fourth longest-serving cast mate altogether (behind S. Epatha Merkerson, Sam Waterston and Jerry Orbach). Hill also appeared in commercials for T.D. Waterhouse, an investment brokerage, and was eventually replaced by fellow Law & Order cast mate Sam Waterston.
Hill and his first wife, Selma Stern, were married in 1951 and had four children before divorcing in 1964. Hill married his second wife, Rachel, in 1967 and they have five children.
His Orthodox Judaism
Appearing in the play A Far Country in 1961 had a profound effect on Hill's later life. In one scene, a patient screams at Freud, "You are a Jew!" This caused Hill to think about his religion. "In the pause that followed I would think, 'What about this?' I slowly became aware that there was something more profound going on in the world than just plays and movies and TV shows. I was provoked to explore my religion." He was inspired by Rabbi Yakov Yosef Twersky (1899–1968), the late Skverrer Rebbe, to adhere to strict Orthodox Judaism, observing a kosher diet, praying three times a day, wearing a four-cornered fringed garment beneath his clothes, and strictly observing Shabbat. This made Hill unavailable for Friday night or Saturday matinee performances, effectively ending his stage career and closing many roles to him in the movies, most notably The Sand Pebbles.
- "Signoff; On 'Law and Order,' a Real Idealist", The New York Times, February 2, 1996.
- Purdum, Todd (March 6, 2005), "Mister Roberts' Goes to Washington", The New York Times.
- Robert Lewis (1984, 1996). "Actors Studio, 1947". Slings and Arrows: Theater in My Life. New York: Applause Books. p. 183. ISBN 1-55783-244-7. "At the end of the summer, on Gadget's return from Hollywood, we settled the roster of actors for our two classes in what we called the Actors Studio - using the word 'studio' as we had when we named our workshop in the Group, the Group Theatre Studio... My group, meeting three times a week, consisted of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach, Mildred Dunnock, Jerome Robbins, Herbert Berghof, Tom Ewell, John Forsythe, Anne Jackson, Sidney Lumet, Kevin McCarthy, Karl Malden, E.G. Marshall, Patricia Neal, Beatrice Straight, David Wayne, and - well, I don't want to drop names, so I'll stop there. In all, there were about fifty."
- Dick Kleiner: "The Actors Studio: Making Stars Out of the Unknown," The Sarasota Journal (Friday, December 21, 1956), p. 26. "That first year, they interviewed around 700 actors and picked 50. In that first group were people like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Tom Ewell, John Forsythe, Julie Harris, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden, E.G. Marshall, Margaret Phillips, Maureen Stapleton, Kim Stanley, Jo Van Fleet, Eli Wallach, Ray Walston and David Wayne."
- Sobiski, John, Steven Hill: Hollywood's Most Talented Curmudgeon.
- "Theater: New Play on Broadway". Time. April 14, 1961. Retrieved May 24, 2010.
- Zolotow, Sam (December 22, 1960), "Co-Stars Named for 'Far Country'", The New York Times.
- "'Far Country' Not Given", The New York Times, April 12, 1961.
- Esterow, Milton (April 13, 1962), "Director with Actor Complex Replaces Ill Star in Freud Role", The New York Times.
- Solow, H; Justman, R (1996), Inside Star Trek: The Real Story, Pocket Books, p. 99.
- White 1991, pp. 98–99.
- White 1991, pp. 60–61, 100.
- "New Play on Broadway", The New Times, April 14, 1961.
- Kitman, Marvin (2000-08-02). "Another crime perpetrated on 'Law & Order'". Entertainment (CNN). Retrieved 2008-07-01.
- "Robert Morgenthau", J source (Biography), Jewish virtual library.
- "Robert Morgenthau — Manhattan DA", NY mag.
- BENSOUSSAN, Barbara (June 30, 2010), "The Master Storyteller: Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Hill Tells His Story", Mishpacha (315).
- White, P (1991), The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier, Avon Books.