Articles

The reluctant rise of Arthur Hiller

BARBARA MOON November 23 1957
Articles

The reluctant rise of Arthur Hiller

BARBARA MOON November 23 1957

The reluctant rise of Arthur Hiller

He disliked movieland but lie "wasn’t ready” to direct

big-budget shows in Canada, so this psychologist-turned-producer gingerly

went to Hollywood. Now, with a phenomenal string of TV

successes and a feature movie behind him, lie’s starting to enjoy himself

BARBARA MOON

Art Hiller didn't want to go to Hollywood. Two years ago, at thirty-one, he was a $7,500-a-year producer for CBC-TV in Toronto and he liked it fine. His assignments were pedestrian programs for the Talks and Public Affairs department, an occasional drama for Ford Theatre and the On Camera series, a couple of installments of a science-fiction show called Space Command. Sydney Newman, supervising producer of drama for the CBC. said Hiller wasn't quite ready for the big CM Theatre series. But then Hiller had only graduated from radio a few months earlier.

He had a three-year-old pale-green Chevrolet coach and he was paying off the mortgage on a pleasant six-room bungalow in suburban Wilson Heights. He had a wide circle of friends with whom he used to sit around in the evening talking about world affairs, men. women. Canadian culture and such other topics as exercise university graduates who read newspapers and still like books. Hiller holds a master’s degree in psychology—-but he had gone to work for the CBC as soon as he left the campus. “1 had a great admiration and warmth and feeling for the CBC and w'hat it was trying to do,” he says now.

Today, only twenty-four months later, Hiller is in Hollywood making forty-five thousand dollars a year as a free-lance TV director. He drives a white Lincoln convertible. His wife Gw'en. a tiny shapely brunette w'ith a snub nose and freckles, drives a baby-blue Bel-Air Chev. They haven't yet found a house to their liking so they pay $250 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.

Hiller is in demand for most of the top drama shows in network television: Climax. Panic. Ford Theatre. Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre and the CBS prestige series. Playhouse 90. He regularly calls the moves for stars iike Carol Channing. Zsa - Zsa Gabor, Ruth Roman. Sarah Churchill, Debra Paget. Linda Darnell. Guy Madison and Edward Everett Horton. He has

even made his first motion picture. The Careless Years, for Kirk Douglas' Bryna Productions.

He didn't plan it this way. He was on holidays from the CBC, in 1955, and staying in New York with Mavor Moore, a Canadian impresario, when Moore recommended his calling Richard Pinkham. a vice-president of NBC. Hiller threw together a dossier that lumped his radio and TV experience under a reassuring six-year time span and did so. Pinkham introduced him to Albert McC leery, executive producer of Matinee, a daytime drama series NBC' was about to launch in compatible color. McCleery had come east from the Hollywood color studios to assemble a stable of directors for the show. He had eight hundred and fifty applications stacked on his desk but he interviewed Hiller and asked for kinescopes of his work at the CBC. He looked at the opening scenes of one kinescope and noted that Hiller had used one actor’s silhouette to frame another actor's face — a dramatic and effective device known irreverently to the trade as a "crotch shot.’’ Hiller had picked up many such thrifty substitutes for expensive sets at CBC. Matinée was to be a low-budget show. "I’m terribly impressed." said McCleery and offered Hiller a job.

Hiller mightn't have taken the job if one factor had been different: he was still smarting from his annual contract negotiations with the CBC which he describes as "unsatisfactory." He adds, l’I felt my keen interest and years of service didn't count for anything.” continued on page 65

The reluctant rise of Arthur Hiller continued from page 29

“He’s Hollywood’s hottest young director, but his lack of qualifications appalls even

Even so it took Hiller two and a half weeks to make up his mind. Every fourth day McCleery nudged him by long-distaitce telephone from Hollywood. “Hollywood!” says Hiller. “I’d thought someday m^ybe New York, or England. But Hollywood? That was Movieland.”

Finally he set himself a deadline, forced himself figuratively to toss the coin and said yes.

He left for Hollywood on September 15. 1955. One year later, to the day, he was running his hands through his cropped dark curls and trying to decide between directing a giant NBC spectacular based on Gordon Jenkins’ sentimental song cycle, Manhattan Tower, and directing a filmed entry for CBS’ Playhouse 90. On the strength of his work for Matinée producers inside and outside NBC had been courting him for more than six months, but Hiller had felt he should fill out a full year on Matinée’s staff. Since the year was up. he left NBC to freelance, and started in with the Playhouse 90.

Today he’s the hottest young director in Hollywood.

Heat, in Hollywood, is not registered in thermal units.

It’s registered by degrees of deference in the manner of headwaiters at Romanoff’s and Ciro’s, of commissionaires in l.as Vegas night clubs, and of sundry other purveyors of high-class services. Not long ago the man from whose car agency Hiller bought the Lincoln found out his customer’s name. “I never realized who you were,” he said reproachfully. “We could have worked out a different deal.”

The last time Hiller went to Las Vegas he got a very good table indeed—and only partly because his reservation had been made at Jack Benny’s request.

There' are other thermometers to record Hiller’s prestige. Louella Parsons reports his latest assignment in her syndicated newspaper column. In the lobby of the little Huntingdon Hartford theatre in Hollywood, between acts of The Apple Cart, actor Gene Raymond seeks him out and asks Hiller how he likes the play. Hiller used Raymond in a Matinée production called Skylark over a year ago.

After the show he goes backstage at the request of Signe Hasso, a Swedish actress who starred in the show and has done television work for Hiller. She kisses him on both cheeks and asks when they’re next going to have lunch together.

Starlet Debra Paget phones and asks when they’re next going to have lunch together.

He has lunch with Zsa-Zsa Gabor and she pouts and says, “Darlingk, you don’t pay enough attention to me.”

He pays a visit, one free afternoon, to the NBC color studios where he directed twenty-seven hour-long plays in color for Matinée. He is waylaid at every other step by technicians, directors, cameramen, actors. “I don't suppose you’re thinking of coming back here,” says a cameraman hopefully. A prop man skitters across the floor to shake his hand: “It's a privilege lo see you again,” he says. When Hiller left NBC to free-lance, his crew sent him off with a champagne party.

Hiller knows he’s hot but he’s wideeyed about the reasons. He admits he knows nothing about cameras or photography, couldn’t finish a course in stagecraft he once attempted, and is regularly

appalled by his own want of qualifications. “If there's anything that makes me feel terrible,” he shudders, "it's looking at a good show somebody else directed.” A Toronto comedian, as skeptical as Hiller about Hiller’s merits, said not long

ago, “I never saw anything special about Art. The only thing he used to do, he used to kill himself laughing at me in dress rehearsals.” The comedian paused, struggling with a thought. “Maybe that’s it,” he announced with an air of discov-

ery. “He made me feel so good 1 always did a good show.”

Psychologist Hiller has an undeniable talent for making people feel good. For a week, during rehearsals of Three Men On a Horse for Playhouse 90. he patient-

ly planted the idea that comedian Jack Carson should finesse rather than bulldoze his way through the part of a New York hood. Carson turned up on the eighth day and announced he’d divined that the part should be played with finesse. Hiller soberly congratulated Carson on his inspiration and insight and said he’d be willing to have Carson try it that way. Carson, consequently, thinks Hiller a brilliant director.

Cameramen think Hiller a brilliant director because he tells them what effect he wants with such obvious belief in their ability to produce it that they do.

No doubt these are among the reasons why Variety consistently applauds Hiller for “fine direction” and for extracting “well-above-par performances from his cast.”

Hiller remains baffled. “I can't explain why they think I'm good,” he says, looking helpless.

Hiller has found Hollywood an astonishing place altogether. For instance, until his wife could join him in Hollywood he rented a bachelor flat in a block carefully chosen for its serenity. The very first night he was roused from sound sleep by flashlights, urgent footsteps and raised voices on the landing outside his door. The next morning at breakfast he read a pertinent headline in the morning paper. It said: Beauty Stabs Mate in Love Triangle. The assault had taken place in the flat next door.

That week end Hiller looked up the nearest Lincoln agency and purchased a convertible. He left it overnight for cleaning and a final check-up. When he returned for it the salesman announced apologetically that the car had been heisted. It was later recovered in downtown Los Angeles.

The only house the Hillers have seriously considered buying burned down as soon as they made an offer on it. They are staying on. for the time being, in their present fiat despite Hiller's nocturnal discovery of a fellow tenant sitting drunkenly on the edge of the communal swimming pool timing a blonde who was doing ten lengths entirely in the buff except for diamond ear clips and necklace. Hiller subsequently heard that the tenant was an ex-second-story man.

In fact he has found the Hollywood carryings-on and the Hollywood citizenry about equally remarkable. He reports, for instance, that starlet Debra Paget customarily heats her swimming pool to ninety degrees; that actress Signe Hasso hates her own dark hair so much she will not appear in public without a wig and that comedienne Carol Channing is apt to ask the nearest onlooker to hold her contact lenses while she does a scene

and secretly wears red satin garters when she’s rehearsing her way into a gaudy role.

Hiller, still a good Canadian egghead, is vaguely embarrassed by such alien tribal rites. He stubbornly avoided Romanoffs, the local rendezvous of choice, until his sister insisted on inspecting it— and was even more embarrassed to discover he liked it. His favorite food, however, is peanut-butter sandwiches. He does not read Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons, which makes him almost unique in the colony. He does not drink, smoke or even like coffee. When he and Gwen decided they'd better survey Las Vegas they took one look and headed for home so fast that they dropped more money— twenty-four dollars—on a speeding ticket than they did at the gaming tables. Hiller eschews the customary Hollywood garb of sports shirt and slacks. During the dress rehearsal of Hiller’s first show for Matinée, Albert McCleery, the executive producer, turned up in the control booth, watched for a while, and then said, “Congratulations.” Hiller started to look up with a demure smile. But McCleery, who was regarding Hiller’s sober suit, white shirt and quiet tie. was already explaining: “You’re all dressed up,” he said.

Hiller, in fact, still can’t help relating his proper station in life to Canadian standards. He is a washout to one niece in Edmonton because he hasn’t yet met Roy Rogers. A nephew, aged eight, is reserving judgment until he sees whether Hiller can produce the twenty-seven Guy Madison autographs he requested, one for each member of his class.

This summer Hiller was happily contemplating a spoof postcard to a friend in Toronto. It was to show himself in dark glasses and bathing trunks recliningon an air mattress in the middle of a swimming pool with lotus blooms behind one ear and a long drink in one hand. The message was to read. “You can see I’m still the same sweet unspoiled boy.” There’s some evidence that the message was more wistful than Hiller made out.

But, since he likes money, prestige and a clement climate as much as the next man, he has bought a polo shirt and a pair of Italian silk pants discreetly labeled “Limited Edition” and decided to settle in. “My career is now," he intones disrespectfully, “in its Hollywood phase.”

His career in its Canadian phase is perpetuated in a questionnaire the CBC once required him to complete. Here, from the archives, is his own account:

Name (Real)? Arthur Hiller Height? 5’ 6"

Weight? 160 Complexion? Medium Hair? Brown

(Hiller failed to mention dimples, a disarming smile and emotional brown eves.)

Date of Birth? Nov. 22. 1923 Pia«? Edmonton Parents’ Names? Harry and Rose What Languages do you Speak Besides English? Jewish Are You Married? Yes W ife’s Name? Gwen Pechet

(Hiller proposed to bis wife, also an Edmontonian, when he was eight and married her in Vancouver when he was twenty-four.)

High School? Victoria High (Edmonton) College? University of British Columbia University of Toronto What Degrees do you hold? MA (Psychology)

Did you support yourself while at school or college? Partly

How? Teaching, warehouse work, haberdashery salesman

Military Service? RCAE (3 years). Served overseas on operations as a Flying Officer Navigator.

Expírience? Summer of 1946—radio acting at CKUA, Edmonton.

Summer of 1947—announcer-operator at CKUA

1949—joined CBC Radio as producer (Talks and Public AfTairs)

1&54—transferred to CBC-TV as producer

(Hiller was also asked to list “special or humorous incidents” connected with his CBC career. He noted: “Once produced a program with a baby in my arms: discussion participant couldn’t afford a sitter.”)

Hiller was determined not to be left holding any babies when he started work in Hollywood. He turned down the first, second and third scripts he was assigned to direct for Matinee on the reasonable grounds that, as a psychologist, he couldn't make sense of their motivation. This was an unheard-of stand for an unseeded director. Hiller, who didn't yet feel committed to Hollywood, explained to McCleery. “I’m down here on trial. I don’t feel I have to be in love with the script, but 1 have to like it.”

McCleery grunted, “That seems reasonable,” and everyone at NBC began looking at the newcomer with extraordinary respect.

In the year he stayed at NBC Hiller did twenty-seven shows for Matinée, ranging from a fourteenth-century Chinese fantasy to an adaptation of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers. He also earned a reputation as the most relaxed man around town. More than one director has cracked up and lied the control booth in the face of TV’s murderous mixture of cues, stopwatches, camera angles, temperamental actors, switchovers, intercuts and sheer electronics. But at the dress rehearsal of his very first Matinée production, Hiller remarked happily. “Is this all 1 have to do? Gee, I might as well be at a party.” He’d found that the U. S. union setup left only about one third as much for the director to do as the CBC had required.

During the dress rehearsal of his next production his entire lighting board blew out, leaving the studio and booth in pitch darkness. It was an expensive newfangled board considered so reliable that NBC hadn’t bothered supplementing it with an emergency system. Hiller was the only person in the studio with dry palms. Fortunately the system was repaired in time for the show.

The schedule for his third show was chopped by two full days. By timing his campaign like a Marx Brothers comedy sequence, by working day and night himself, and by getting the co-operation of

cast and sfudio crews Hiller managed to mount his show in time. "It was a bit rough in spots." he admits now. "but it’s still my favorite show.”

He insists that no crisis will give him ulcers. Occasionally, however, he gets quietly upset about people.

He is still bothered, for example, by an incident connected with For These Services, one of his Matinée productions. He cast a Negro as a rural doctor in the drama. “1 didn’t do it self-consciously,” he says. "It just seemed right.” It turned out that this was such a rare occurrence

that the entire Negro press picked up the story. The Negro actor brought in the clippings to show Hiller and added this poignant footnote: he had been speaking to some friends who’d asked what he was currently doing. "I'm doing a Matinée Theatre,” he'd announced with pride.

“What sort of part?”

“A doctor.”

Instant comprehension: “Oh. A witch doctor.”

“They couldn’t imagine any other kind of part he'd be getting,” says Hiller sadly. "Isn't that awful?”

Hiller can a so get upset to the point of sleeplessness or vomiting about misunderstandings with his colleagues. When Ruth Roman, the only difficult actress he’s encountered, kept him “at polite loggerheads” all through rehearsals he turned up with a psychosomatic backache so crippling he had to direct the show doubled up. The backache left him when the show was over.

He quit NBC partly because he’d had tempting offers from outside but partly, as well, because executive producer McCleery was in a pet with him over a

minor matter of protocol. “He thought I was unfair and I thought he was unfair,” recalls Hiller, “so I cleared out my desk the very next day.”

As a free-lance Hiller has tackled half a dozen dramas as well as a Damon Runyonesque farce, Three Men on a Horse, and a western, Massacre at Sand Creek, for Playhouse 90. On a trip home early this year Hiller found this dazzling record didn’t mean a thing, since Edmontonians can’t get Playhouse 90 on their TV sets.

Hiller has also contributed to most of

the other major series from Climax to Panic. The contributions were so deft that Bryna Productions, an independent company headed by actor-businessman Kirk Douglas, decided Hiller was the man to direct their movie, The Careless Years. He describes the plot variously as “a tender adolescent romance” or “a story about the budding sex urge.” The picture was only released late this September so Edmontonians haven’t had a chance to be impressed with this achievement either.

Hiller, who had never even thought of directing a movie before, was quickly

caught up in the Hollywood he’d imagined back in Canada as “Movieland”— everything from casting problems to nervous pangs at the sneak preview.

The cast list called for a pretty seventeen-year-old heroine and Hiller, along with the author, Ed Lewis, began auditioning every teen-ager in southern California. The audition consisted of a key love scene and Hiller customarily read with each candidate. He claims he got pretty good, but his self-confidence suffered when one young thing turned to Lewis and said condescendingly, “Mr. Hiller reads very well. But, you know, when you look up into the face of a thirty-yearold man . . .” She trailed off meaningfully.

Hiller and Lewis then repaired to New York to audition some eastern teen-agers. One night, by way of relaxation, they went to the theatre and there, on the next aisle, they saw the perfect seventeenyear-old. At intermission they sidled closer and decided she still stacked up.

At the show’s end they plunged out of the theatre in pursuit of her. They said they wanted to give her a screen test. Then, simultaneously, they realized they were in a burlesque classic of a situation. It was raining and they were coatless. While their quarry stood under an umbrella and looked coldly past their soggy collars they stumbled wretchedly through over-elaborate explanations. Hiller waved his Screen Directors’ Guild card under her nose. Lewis kept saying, “Please, I’m a happily married man.”

They said, “You can bring along your mother . . . your father . . . your whole family . . .” The girl actually turned up

the next day—with her grandmother. The story, however, had a fresh twist. She proved an indifferent actress and didn’t get the part. It went, instead, to Natalie Trundy, a young starlet who had earlier been featured in The Monte Carlo Story with Marlene Dietrich. She plays opposite an ex-child actor, Dean Stockwell.

Hiller endeared himself to Miss Trundy and Stockwell during the filming of a beach-party scene at Malibu Beach last January. Even in California January is chilly, and the stars grumbled loudly when they learned they had to strip to swimsuits and play in the surf for the cameras. Hiller was ready for them. When he called for the scene and complaints broke out afresh, he calmly removed his pants, emerged in bathing trunks and waded into the water up to his chest.

Such sympathetic ploys obviously underlie Hiller’s firmly established reputation as a man who can get the most from his team. The reputation, in turn, is bringing him more and more assignments. Already this season he’s completed another Playhouse 90 and an entry for Climax and he’s got contracts piled up till past Christmas.

With so much work in store. Hiller’s established in Hollywood for the foreseeable future.

And that’s beginning to be fine with him. “I like it,” he said recently. “Down here, no one seems surprised at all that it’s me it’s all happening to.”

He paused, pondering.

“You know, back at the CBC,” he said, “they’re still wondering why NBC hired me in the first place.” ★