Born December 20, 1921, in Minneapolis, MN; died December 27, 2002, in New York, NY. Film director. George Roy Hill won the best director Oscar for 1973's The Sting, which reunited the stellar acting team of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, who first came together in Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a hit film released in 1969. Both films landed on the list of top ten grossing films of all time, making Hill the first director to have two films on the list.
Hill grew up in Minneapolis, the son of George R. and Helen Frances Owens Hill. He loved adventure at an early age, and was especially drawn to aviation. He spent much of his free time at the small airport outside of Minneapolis getting to know aviators and airplanes. He became a pilot himself at the age of 16. He also loved classical music, and he studied music while a student at Yale University and sang in the school's glee club. Also at Yale, he led a drama club. He graduated from college in 1943 with a bachelor of arts degree, and immediately joined the Marine Corps, where he served in the South Pacific during World War II as a pilot, transporting supplies and troops.
Returning from the war, Hill moved to Texas, where he worked for a time as a newspaper reporter. Not long after moving to Texas, however, he again relocated, this time to Dublin, Ireland, where he continued his study of music, adding literature to the mix at Trinity College. He returned to the United States in 1949 after completing a bachelor's degree in literature, and went to work as an actor. He received good reviews in an Off–Broadway play by Strindberg called The Creditors, and went on tour with a reparatory company specializing in Shakespeare. It was while working with the Shakespeare company that Hill met his future wife, Louisa Horton. They married on April 7, 1951, and subsequently divorced in 1978.
Following his theater work, Hill moved on to radio, where he became a regular on a soap opera. But the outbreak of the Korean War interrupted Hill's career in radio; the Marines recalled him to active duty, where he served a year and a half at a flight training facility in North Carolina. Returning to civilian life as a major, Hill found work in the burgeoning television industry, where he worked as a writer and director. One of his early efforts was a drama called My Brother's Keeper, which was based on his experiences in the military, and in which he also acted. The show was aired on the Kraft Television Theater.
Eventually becoming a prominent television writer and director, Hill earned Emmy awards for writing and directing A Night to Remember, a drama about the sinking of the Titanic. Hill returned to theater in 1957, directing Look Homeward, Angel on Broadway. This play, written by Ketti Frings, and based on a novel by Thomas Wolfe, won a Pulitzer Prize. Other Broadway directing gigs followed, including A Period of Adjustment by Tennessee Williams. That play brought Hill to Hollywood in 1962 when he was called upon to direct the film version. The film featured Jane Fonda in her first major film role. Hill remained primarily a film director for the rest of his career as a director. His credits in the 1960s included Toys in the Attic, released in 1963, and 1966's Hawaii. Hill finished the 1960s with the resoundingly successful Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That film represented a milestone not just in Hill's career as a director, but also for the genre of the Western film. Instead portraying its main characters as stereotypical Western outlaws, it presented Newman and Redford as free spirits for whom robbing banks was fun. The film, a tremendous box office success, was credited with reviving what was then perceived as the dying art of the Western film. It won four Academy awards, including one for best song for "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The film also received nominations for best picture and best director.
Hill next put Newman and Redford together in The Sting, which featured the duo as conmen involved in the con of their lives to escape from a murderous gangster. This film was credited with bringing back to popularity the music of ragtime composer Scott Joplin. It received no less than ten Academy nominations, winning a total of seven, including those for best picture, best director, original screenplay, and best musical score.
Although the Newman/Redford films were very successful at the box office and earned numerous Academy awards, they were not liked by every critic, including longtime New Yorker writer Pauline Kael, who criticized both films for focusing on the relationship between the Newman and Redford characters at the expense of female characters. Hill responded by expressing exasperation at the idea that he should stop the action in the films just to introduce female characters who did not advance the plot.
Other films directed by Hill included The World According to Garp, released in 1982, and Slap Shot, released in 1977. The latter film, which was about hockey players, and starred Newman, was initially not well received, but it gained popularity in the years following its release. The last film Hill directed was Funny Farm which was released in 1988, starring Chevy Chase. After completing this film, Hill retired from filmmaking to teach at Yale.
Hill died on December 27, 2002, in New York City of complications related to Parkinson's disease at the age of 81. He is survived by his sons, George Roy III and John Andrew Steele; his daughters, Frances and Owens; and 12 grandchildren.
Chicago Tribune, December 28, 2002, sec. 2, p. 11; New York Times, December 28, 2002, p. A20; Washington Post, December 28, 2002, p. B7.
— Michael Belfiore