He Helped Make the Case for the Golden Age of Television
Actors have come and gone during the nine seasons of NBC’s Emmy Award-winning drama series “Law & Order,” but veteran Steven Hill has remained a constant. Since the second episode, the 76-year-old Hill has played the pragmatic New York Dist. Atty. Adam Schiff.
His acting career spans more than half a century. The Seattle-born Hill made his Broadway debut in 1946 in Ben Hecht’s “A Flag Is Born,” with Paul Muni and Marlon Brando. A member of the Actors Studio, he appeared on Broadway in the original productions of the classics “Mister Roberts” and “A Country Girl.”
He was also popular on television during the “Golden Age,” starring in such live dramas as “Middle of the Night” and “The Sacco-Vanzetti Story,” and was featured in such theatrical films as “The Lady Without a Passport,” “The Goddess” and “The Slender Thread.”
Hill was the lead in “Mission: Impossible” during its first season in 1967-68, but then he left and didn’t appear on television for 13 years.
The soft-spoken actor, in Los Angeles recently from New York, where “Law & Order” is filmed, chatted about his series, his beginnings and why he doesn’t like to talk about his departure from “Mission: Impossible.”
Question: You’ve been with “Law & Order” since the second episode. But it must be difficult for you to act opposite so many co-stars. No sooner do you develop a rapport with an actor then it seems they’ve left the show.
Answer: It’s a reality you can’t turn away from. That reality has different elements in it that you respond to either positively or negatively or uncontrollably. . . . It becomes a project of learning all over again a new personality’s composition and reflexes. It’s a fascinating kind of experience with each new person.
Q: Do you hear from D.A.s about your performance?
A: Yes, I do! I don’t like to blow my own horn, but it’s a natural characteristic of an actor! But they have been very complimentary [about my performance] and [say], “That’s exactly the way this guy in life behaves,” which is wonderful and a tribute to me. How this happens, I don’t know. I just try to do it as real as I can.
Q: Is Schiff the best character you’ve had during your long career?
A: I don’t think there is any question about it: definitely. A lot of that, I think, is also because of the kind of freedom I have been given to act this part the way I feel it and the way I think it and see it. This kind of atmosphere of freedom and flexibility from the directors and writers and producers can only produce a feeling of comfort for a creative person.
Q: The Emmys celebrated their 50th anniversary this year. You will be celebrating your 50th year in television next year. Can you talk about what it was like to be a part of the “Golden Age” of TV?
A: It was a very special time and a very special kind of writing about life that these few writers had a grasp of. I did a lot of those shows--big parts, leading parts. I was really going to town all of those years. I did a lot of shows with [directors] John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn.
It was a very unusual period of work on television for the actors because, first of all, there was no stopping once that show started. It was all live, and your heart was in your mouth every moment of the time. If you made a mistake in front of how many millions of people--besides people in the business watching you--I mean, you couldn’t retract it and do it over again. Everybody felt that. By the end of a show like that, if you hadn’t lost five pounds. . . . It was nerve-racking.
Q: Were you also appearing on Broadway during this time?
A: I was doing some Broadway. At that time I was very intensely involved with the Actors Studio and I had the good fortune to become selected as a charter member--the first class of the Actors Studio with [director] Elia Kazan. It was in ’47. That was terrific. I got into a play at almost the same time called “Mister Roberts,” with Henry Fonda. I played the part of one of the five guys who looks through the glasses [at the nurses].
I was in it only about six months because I wanted to go into a new Broadway play the Actors Studio was doing with Elia Kazan directing. It was the first play we ever did on Broadway. It didn’t last too long. It was a play called “Sundown Beach.” I thought it was another step in my development.
Q: You’re originally from Seattle. Did you start acting there?
A: I had studied acting a little bit at the University of Washington, for about one year. I listened to my sister’s advice. She really became involved in the theater before me and encouraged me. She advised: “Don’t really make a career of studying acting in college because you are not going to learn anything from amateurs.”
I was advised not to go to New York right away because it was a tough place and that I should break myself in by going to Chicago. I worked in Chicago for about eight months and then I went on to New York. I struggled there for two years, knocking on doors and pounding on the pavement. The hallmark of an actor who gets established is perseverance.
Q: The first time I ever heard of you was as the star of “Mission: Impossible.” But you left the series after the first year and were replaced by Peter Graves. Why did you leave?
A: The experience I had then was not the happiest experience. I don’t really enjoy talking about it. I had fun in many of the shows playing all the different parts, but there were subsidiary things that went on that I have never really gone into and am not interested [in talking about], because I don’t think the public has any interest in that kind of business. At the end of the year, I felt that was enough for me, and it was.
I didn’t [want] to get back into the business. I thought maybe that was the result of everything that happened. I felt I should just maybe forget about show business for a little while and just set my sights on the broader picture and what life is about and getting a philosophical view of why I was put on this planet, so to speak--do a little thinking and not feeling rushed, rushed, rushed to get the next scene done and the next show done.
Q: Did you try other jobs during your hiatus?
A: I sold real estate. I sold some high school technical programs for Bell & Howell. And then I was a salesman of deodorizers for bathrooms. I would go to businesses and parochial schools selling these deodorizers. So I had these kind of experiences, which probably, without me knowing it, were developing the treasure chest of life experiences that someday I could probably use if I got back into the business.
Q: When you decided to go back into show business, were you worried that you had been forgotten in the interim?
A: I wasn’t too worried about that because I had pretty much established myself over many years. During the “Golden Age” I did a considerable amount of work and important stage plays, and I didn’t do too badly, critically. People were very respectful and very happy to see me. So I started again.
“Law & Order” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on NBC. Reruns appear on A&E.;