Best remembered for his hit film “Love Story,” (1970), the Canadian Jewish director Arthur Hiller’s highest achievement may have been remaining a mensch during the vertiginous ups and downs of a long Hollywood career. Hiller, who died on August 17 at age 92, attributed his trademark gentle calm to his parents, Rose Garfin and Harry Hiller, who immigrated from Poland early in the 20th century. In 2001, Hiller told an interviewer from the Directors Guild of America:
“My parents loved culture. They loved music. They loved theatre. They loved literature. And they started a Yiddish theater up in Edmonton, Alberta in about 1929 or 1930, and not because they were professional but just to keep that culture alive, to do a play once or twice a year for the community… They taught us moral values. My parents were too good almost. They really… I wish I could live up to the values that they tried. I’m still trying, but whatever good values I have come from them.”
Precise terminology was less important than preserving the overall tradition of Yiddishkeit in a remote outpost. In 2000, Hiller told Yale Strom for his “Book of Klezmer,” “The music we had for the Yiddish theatre in Edmonton while I was growing up was just called Jewish music. If there was dancing involved with the music, we called it Yiddish wedding music. Some of it was obviously klezmer, but I really wasn’t aware of calling this music anything but Yiddish wedding music until I went to a concert here in Los Angeles where they called the music performed klezmer.”
In 1948, good values and ardent emotions led Hiller to volunteer for the Israeli army shortly after the outbreak of the First Arab–Israeli War. Still a college student, Hiller later recalled in Alan Dershowitz’s “What Israel Means to Me,”:
“I volunteered but they turned me down because I was married. I drove down to Seattle to try to volunteer from the United States but again was turned down because I was married. My wife agreed to volunteer too, but again, ‘No.’ … I admire [Israel’s] determination and dignity of purpose with high ethical standards as they try to make their country safe for democracy, while the countries around them try to make the Arab world safe from democracy.”
No mere inexperienced idealist, Hiller was by 1948 a veteran of three years in the Royal Canadian Air Force, navigating bombers over Germany during World War II. Hiller’s wife Gwen, who died in June at age 92, was an experienced social worker and hospital volunteer who provided support for her husband’s career during their 68-year marriage. As one obituary stated, she was born Gwen Pechet in Edmonton, and was noted for the “strong connection she had to her Jewish identity, without being particularly religious.”
Together, in the 1970s, the Hillers provided clothing and books about Judaism to Russian refuseniks, Soviet Jews who had been refused permission to make Aliyah. As a memoir by producer Ron Austin indicates, Hiller was one of the founders of a “campaign on behalf of Jewish writers in the Soviet Union who had been denied the right to emigrate to Israel.” Soon Hiller informed Austin that they had “succeeded in getting the release of at least one of the ‘refuseniks,’” and the writer and his family had arrived in Israel.
The moral fortitude associated with such activism doubtless helped Hiller weather early career disappointments, as when he was fired from “The Pawnbroker,” (1962) a film based on a celebrated novel about Sol Nazerman, a concentration camp survivor. When the producer Ely Landau cancelled another project which his preferred director Sidney Lumet had been assigned to, rather than continue with Hiller, he replaced him with Lumet. Years later, Hiller would accept another job offer from Landau for another Holocaust-themed project, “The Man in the Glass Booth” (1975) based on a play about a Jewish man who in reality may or may not be a Nazi war criminal.
In this and other projects, Hiller benefited from having earned a master’s degree in psychology at the University of Toronto after his war service, helping him to provide calm counsel to overwrought actors. He acquired the reputation of a faithful reproducer of screenwriter’s intentions, as the producer Tom Mankiewicz recounted in his autobiography. Dissatisfied with one director already assigned to his film “The Hospital” (1971), Paddy Chayevsky was warned by studio executives that with Hiller, “all you’re going to get is the script.” To which Chayevsky exclaimed “Aha!” and demanded that Hiller, with whom he had previously worked on “The Americanization of Emily” (1964), be hired. The resulting sardonic look at health care, which would benefit from intense discussions between director and screenwriter about the screenplay, retains its bite today.
So does “The In-Laws” (1979) starring Peter Falk and Alan Arkin, a comedy which soars, due to a witty script and lead actors left to their own devices who radiate a benevolent sense of insanity. At times other comedies helmed by Hiller seemed weakened by overacting, possibly due to a disinclination to browbeat performers, and his farewell to the industry, “National Lampoon’s Pucked” (2006), in which Jon Bon Jovi played the coach of a women’s hockey team, was a definite anticlimax. Even so, Hiller’s best films, including “The Hospital” “The In-Laws,” and “The Man in the Glass Booth” reflected the moral code he had embraced early on while labouring in his parent’s amateur Yiddish theatre in Edmonton.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.