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Obituaries

James Hill; Producer-Writer Married Rita Hayworth, Teamed With Burt Lancaster

January 16, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

James Hill, a film producer and writer once married to Rita Hayworth and who put her in one of her last major films, "Separate Tables," and later wrote a biography of the actress revered as "the love goddess," has died. He was 84.

Hill, who also had a long professional association with the late actor Burt Lancaster, died Thursday in Santa Monica of complications of Alzheimer's disease.

Married to Hill from 1958 to 1961, Hayworth died in 1987, also of Alzheimer's. Public attention was focused on the then little-known, memory-robbing malady in 1981 when Hayworth's daughter, Princess Yasmin Khan, won conservatorship over the flame-haired actress in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Hill, in his 1983 book "Rita Hayworth: A Memoir," indicated that their marriage--her fifth and final, his only--fell apart because he forced Hayworth to continue making movies when she wanted both of them to retire from the Hollywood hubbub, enabling her to paint and him to write.

But the couple remained friends, and Hill told The Times in 1983 that he had written the book to entertain her, saying, "She had always been . . . nifty with me, but I hadn't always been nifty with her. So I wrote this book for her.

"I wanted to amuse Rita while she still had her marbles," he said. "I used to write short stories. And Rita once said to me, 'Why don't you write something about us?'

"So I began. I would write a chapter, then drive over to her house and read it to her. This was when she could still get a grasp on something tangible. She'd laugh, enjoy it; then one day she didn't laugh any more.

"I stopped wanting to see her after that," he said of Hayworth, who made her final film, "The Wrath of God," in 1972. "But I'd taken some money from a publisher, so I thought I'd better finish. It was just a labor of love. I never expected it to be in bookstores."

He Started as a Page

A Washington Post reviewer called the book an "unusual, sometimes poignant memoir," adding less gently that it "reads like a screenplay" complete with how the couple "meet cute" twice--once when Hayworth, born Margarita Cansino, and Hill were teenagers in Mexico and he thought her a prostitute, and then years later in Los Angeles when the star mistook him for a Hollywood cleaning man.

Hill, born Aug. 1, 1916, in Jeffersonville, Ind., and educated at the University of Washington, was the son of a lawyer and got his first job in entertainment as a page boy for NBC in New York. Later he started writing for the network, and in the late 1940s he wrote and produced the popular weekly radio comedy "Beulah."

He came to Hollywood as a contract writer for MGM Studios, and met Lancaster when he wrote the screenplay for the athletic actor's 1953 pirate romp "His Majesty O'Keefe."

Hill worked closely with Lancaster and former agent-turned-producer Harold Hecht, earning production credits on more Lancaster star vehicles--"Apache," "Vera Cruz," "The Kentuckian" and "Trapeze"--until 1956 when the trio formed the production company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, or HHL.

Together they produced, with Lancaster starring, such films as "Sweet Smell of Success," "Run Silent, Run Deep," "The Devil's Disciple," "The Unforgiven" and "Separate Tables."

The 1958 "Separate Tables," with Hayworth in a rare dramatic role opposite Lancaster, also starred Deborah Kerr and Oscar winners David Niven and Wendy Hiller. Leonard Maltin in his 2001 Movie & Video Guide describes the film as "superb drama" and adds "bouquets all around."

Known as ruthless and daring, the HHL trio introduced a new era in filmmaking in which a production company controlled every aspect of the movie process, from securing a property to working with writers, selecting actors, editing, marketing and publicity.

Above Heads of Audience?

The production company disintegrated after 1959, partly because of the box office failure of "Sweet Smell of Success."

Critically praised and still revered in the film industry for its dialogue, acting and urban energy, the film prompted one director to speculate for The Times only last month that the landmark HHL movie failed "because it was above the head of the general movie-going audience. It was just too damned good."

Hill later was associated with the critically panned 1967 film "The Way West" starring Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark.

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