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Arthur Hill, 84; won Tony for `Woolf' role

October 27, 2006|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Arthur Hill, a veteran actor whose career was punctuated by two distinctly different roles -- the weary, abused husband in the Broadway production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and the stalwart attorney in the television series "Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law" -- has died. He was 84.

Hill died Sunday of Alzheimer's disease at an assisted-living facility in Pacific Palisades, according to his son, Douglas.

Known for his deep, pensive eyes and soft, calming voice, Hill fashioned a busy career over 40 years. He won a Tony Award for his work in the groundbreaking production of Edward Albee's "Virginia Woolf" and appeared in "More Stately Mansions," the Eugene O'Neill play that was the inaugural production at the Music Center's Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.

Hill's portrayal of Marshall, a small-town attorney, ran on ABC from 1971 to 1974. The show, which featured such up-and-coming actors as Lee Majors and David Soul as Marshall's associates, was modeled after another popular ABC series, "Marcus Welby, M.D.," which starred Robert Young as a small-town doctor.

In fact, the shows had several joint episodes.

According to "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present" by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, in one episode "Marshall found himself defending the father of one of Dr. Welby's patients against a murder charge." In another episode, Brooks and Marsh note, he defended an associate of Welby's against a paternity suit.

While Hill was perhaps best known for his role as Marshall, he also delivered substantial performances in the TV films "Death Be Not Proud" (1975) and "Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys" (1976). His big-screen credits include work with Marlon Brando in "The Ugly American" (1963), Paul Newman in "Harper" (1966) and a potentially lethal virus from outer space in "The Andromeda Strain" (1971).

Born in the Saskatchewan town of Melfort, Hill was the son of a lawyer. After serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II, he earned his degree from the University of British Columbia. To support himself through school, where he planned to earn a law degree, he found work with the Canadian Broadcasting Co. performing in radio theater, and loved it.

"In acting, I seemed to instinctively know what was going on, while other students worked at it," he told The Times' Cecil Smith some years ago. "And in law, they seemed to take to it instinctively, while I had to work at it."

Hill moved to England with his actress wife, Peggy Hassard, in 1948. There he worked for the BBC in radio plays while expanding his activities to theater and television.

His break in London theater came in the early 1950s in productions of "Home of the Brave" and Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker." Hill first appeared on the New York stage in "The Matchmaker" in 1955.

In 1962, he was back in London working on a film when he received a copy of the script for "Virginia Woolf?" from director Alan Schneider. Schneider wanted him to play George, the beleaguered husband in Albee's drama of a long-married couple acting out their love-hate relationship during an evening of heavy drinking and stark profanity at their home on a college campus.

"That script was the size of a telephone book, but I knew I had to be part of it," Hill told a Times reporter in 1967. "Later, when I learned the script would not be cut and that there would be no out-of-town tryouts, I fought to get out of it.

"Fortunately, I didn't."

Cast opposite Uta Hagen as Martha, and with George Grizzard and Melinda Dillon, the play was a sensation and ran for 664 performances from Oct. 13, 1962, to May 13, 1964.

"If the drama falters, the acting of Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill does not," critic Howard Taubman observed in his review of the play in the New York Times. "As the vulgar, scornful, desperate Martha, Miss Hagen makes a tormented harridan horrifyingly believable. As the quieter, tortured and diabolical George, Mr. Hill gives a superbly modulated performance based on restraint as a foil to Miss Hagen's explosiveness."

The production garnered five Tonys, with Hill and Hagen winning for best actor and actress.

In 1967, Hill was part of more groundbreaking theater work, this time in the first English-language production of "More Stately Mansions," at the Ahmanson. His co-stars were Ingrid Bergman and Colleen Dewhurst.

While the play was considered something of a mystery to critics and the casting reflected the importance of name value over story line, Hill, Bergman and Dewhurst all received high marks.

By 1968, Hill had moved to Los Angeles to mine the steadier veins of television and film.

In his memoirs, "Virginia Woolf" director Schneider reflected on Hill's decision to head west.

"The roles he now gets out there are bland/sincere or establishment/hypocritical. That is a loss to American theater, because onstage Arthur Hill, mature and attractive as he was and is, could give us something we do not have. The pram in the hallway does indeed remain the enemy of art."

In Hollywood, Hill appeared in films and some 50 television series, most recently "Murder, She Wrote" in 1990.

His 56-year marriage to Hassard ended with her death from Alzheimer's disease in 1998.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his second wife, Anne-Sophie Taraba; a stepdaughter, Daryn Sherman; a step-granddaughter; and two sisters.

There will be no services.


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