Fans of television’s Law & Order have waited in vain for any commemoration of the 85th birthday of Steven Hill, the actor who played New York District Attorney Adam Schiff from 1990 to 2000. Hill retired at age 78 from the role, which is based on New York’s own Robert Morgenthau, now 88, who shows no signs of retiring, although he is three years older than Hill. Born Solomon Krakovsky in Seattle, Washington in 1922, Hill is one of the rare Orthodox Jews to pursue a mainstream acting career in television and film. From early on, his religious beliefs inspired (and sometimes interfered with) his career; his 1946 Broadway debut, alongside Paul Muni and Marlon Brando, was in Ben Hecht’s A Flag Is Born, which advocated a new Jewish State.
After an early stage career, mentored by Lee Strasberg at The Actors’ Studio, Hill began to work widely in television and film. Much of his best work (as a weary veteran in Paddy Chayevsky’s 1958 The Goddess and as the tormented father of a learning disabled child in John Cassavetes’s A Child Is Waiting must be hunted down on VHS tapes, still unavailable on DVD. It’s worth the effort, since Hill is the epitome of a “thinking actor,” who ruminates over roles until he drives some colleagues wild. Martin Landau, who appeared with Hill in the first year of television’s Mission Impossible (1966), called him “nuts, volatile, mad, and his work was exciting.” Hill was soon fired from Mission Impossible, for intransigence about a number of things, including an extremely strict observance of the Sabbath. Hill retired to an Orthodox community in Rockland County, where he worked in real estate from 1967 to 1977; by not acting during this decade, he avoiding being made into a plastic television star (his role in Mission Impossible was filled by the suave but mechanical Peter Graves).
Returning to acting, Hill landed minor roles in mostly forgettable films, with the exception of two charming if stagy filmed plays by Horton Foote, On Valentine’s Day (1986 ) and Courtship (1987). In 1990, when Law & Order debuted, Hill was seen at full force. He self-deprecatingly speaks of his role in Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion, saying: “I get a kick out of that curmudgeon business. I used to love to see actors like that, like Monty Woolley. You love those older people who do that deliberately.”
Yet, in many episodes, Hill far transcended the Monty Woolley shtick of comic disgruntlement. One that comes immediately to mind is “Terminal,” from Law & Order’s seventh season, so far unavailable on DVD. In it, Schiff has authorized his hospitalized, terminally ill wife to be unplugged from life support. As she flatlines, he watches, giving out an agonized whimper of animal-like intensity at the moment of her death. This is great acting by any definition; without dialogue and very succinctly, Hill manages to portray the physical and emotional effect of losing a life partner. Happy 85th, Mr. Hill!