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Sydney Pollack: Triple Threat

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Sydney Pollack: Triple Threat

Sydney Pollack, who was 73 when he died May 26, 2008, produced, directed or acted in some of the most popular and critically praised films of the last 40 years. Described as a "jack-of-all-trades filmmaker," Pollack moved smoothly among different genres, drawing laughs both behind the camera and in front of it in 1982's Tootsie and winning hearts – and a best director Oscar – for 1985's Out of Africa.

Pollack, who seemed to burst onto the scene in 1969 with the Academy Award-nominated They Shoot Horses Don't They?, "made smart, exciting, polished films … and did them so well that his superb work behind the camera remained invisible to most eyes upon their first or second viewings," movie writers Alex Simon and Terry Keefe wrote on TheHollywoodInterview.com.

Pollack "kept in step with the times. He doesn't get locked into one decade and left there," film scholar Jeanine Basinger told the Los Angeles Times after Pollack's death. "He had a very sharp political sensibility and a keen sense of what the issues of his world were, and he advanced and changed as the times advanced and changed."

Pollack initially had his sights set on an acting career. In 1961 he was working behind the scenes on the movie The Young Savages when star Burt Lancaster urged him to try his hand at directing. As Pollack recalled on National Public Radio's Fresh Air years later, Lancaster called Universal Studios boss Lew Wasserman and said, "Lew, I got a kid here. I don't know if he can direct, but he's talented. … In any case, he can't be worse than those bums you got working for you now."

Pollack was modest about his skills. His obituary in The New York Times noted that he once said, "I was never what I would call a great shooter or visual stylist." In 2005 Pollack told the Tribeca Film Festival that one didn't have to be an actor to be a director, but "it's an enormous help."

Pollack's craftsmanship "derived most of all from a great actor's understanding that the arc of a character must be a compelling odyssey for both audiences and ensembles. Pollack knew the art of acting was about creating indelible men and women and juicy, pertinent narratives, not just making scenes," Baltimore Sun movie critic Michael Sragow wrote after Pollack's death.

Pollack influenced movies from the business side as well. As an executive with Mirage Enterprises, he saw that films like Cold Mountain and Searching for Bobby Fischer received financing and support.

He showed range in front of the camera as well, playing for laughs as a recurring character on television's Will and Grace and taking on more serious roles such as 2007's Michael Clayton, which he also produced.

Pollack and Robert Redford began a working relationship with 1973's The Way We Were and made six other films together, including best picture Oscar winner Out of Africa. He directed Sally Field and Paul Newman in 1981's Absence of Malice and Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn and Robert Mitchum also received Pollack's directing guidance.

Yet Pollack remained "a generous, unpretentious talent," The Associated Press said.

"Sydney Pollack was one of the nicest, most congenial people I have ever known," film reviewer Philip French, who served on the Cannes Film Festival jury with Pollack, wrote after the director's death.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."