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Steven Hill (1922–2016)

by Legacy Staff

Actor played DA Adam Schiff on TV’s “Law & Order.”

Steven Hill, the actor known best for his portrayal of District Attorney Adam Schiff for the first 10 seasons of “Law & Order,” died Monday, Aug. 23, 2016. He was 94.

When Hill left “Law & Order” in 2000, he was the last of the show’s original cast members to depart. But in fact, he didn’t appear on the very first episode. Produced two years before the show was picked up in 1990, that episode featured Roy Thinnes in the DA role. But when it was time to continue with new episodes, Thinnes was no longer available, so Hill stepped in to create an iconic television lawyer.


Hill went on to portray the upright attorney in 288 episodes over 10 seasons, helping build the unstoppable brand that “Law & Order” would become. Nominated for two Emmy awards for his work on the show, Hill called it the most difficult acting job he ever took.

“It’s like acting in a second language,” he told The New York Times, citing the challenge of learning and convincingly repeating the legal jargon with which his character had to be comfortable.

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In addition to being Hill’s hardest acting gig, “Law & Order” was also his last, a late-career star turn that became, for many, his best-known credit. His career began decades earlier on the Broadway stage. A student of the brand-new Actors Studio, Hill made his earliest mark in the Broadway hit “Mister Rogers.” Though his part was small, he was given the chance to improvise his dialogue, a contribution to the creative process that would stick with him — not always in a positive way.

As Hill’s talent attracted more and more notice, he made his way to Hollywood, appearing in movies including “A Lady Without Passport” (1950), “Storm Fear” (1955), and “The Goddess” (1958). Even more frequently, he appeared on TV, finding roles in anthology shows including “Goodyear Television Playhouse,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and “Playhouse 90,” as well as guest roles on popular programs including “The Untouchables” and “Route 66.”

But even as his list of credits grew, Hill began to develop a reputation as difficult to work with. He didn’t pass the blame for this reputation, admitting in an interview with The New York Times, “I was so sure I knew what the writer was trying to say, and my ideas were not always the same as the director’s.” It wasn’t an approach that endeared him to directors, and his difficult reputation came to a head during his single season as the star on TV’s “Mission: Impossible.”

When Hill signed on with the show for its first season in 1966, playing mission leader Dan Briggs, he made it clear to producers that, as an observant Jew, he was serious about honoring the Sabbath. He would not be able to work from sundown Fridays until dusk Saturdays. This wreaked havoc with the shooting schedule, as Hill was the only cast or crew member stepping out at such an early hour. His work was good, and the show quickly became popular, but his absences were increasingly problematic.

Episodes soon began to focus less on Hill’s character, elevating Martin Landau to a leading role as Rollin Hand. Hill became fussy on set, complaining about minor annoyances. In an incident unrelated to Hill’s religious observances, he once refused to shoot a scene that required him to climb a staircase to the rafters. It was the last straw, and he was written out of the show after the first season.

Hill took a long hiatus from acting after leaving “Mission: Impossible,” focusing for 10 years on writing and real estate. “Mission: Impossible” co-star Landau later reflected on Hill’s career that could have been — and wasn’t: “When I first became an actor, there were two young actors in New York: Marlon Brando and Steven Hill. A lot of people said that Steven would have been the one, not Marlon. He was legendary. Nuts, volatile, mad, and his work was exciting.” He added, “There was always something self-destructive, always a part of him that didn’t want success, along with this very special talent. When he wanted to work he was exceptional. When he didn’t want to work, for whatever reasons, he was destructive to himself.”

Hill made his way back to acting after his 10 years away, finding roles in movies including “Yentl” (1983), “Legal Eagles” (1986), and “The Firm” (1993). He took a recurring TV role on “One Life To Live” as Aristotle Descamedes in 1984 and 1985. He made appearances on “Thirtysomething” and “Columbo,” and then he found his way to his longest-lasting and best-known role on “Law & Order.”

Born Feb. 24, 1922, in Seattle, Washington, to Russian immigrant parents, Hill was a veteran of the U.S. Naval Reserve. Raised in the Jewish faith, he increased his commitment to his religion in 1961, when an experience in a Broadway play inspired him to pursue Orthodox Judaism.

He was twice married, and his second wife, Rachel, survives him. He had nine children.

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