Sunday, December 27, 2009

Underrated Performer of the Week: Arthur Hill

On the big and small screens, Arthur Hill specialized in portraying low-key, authoritative characters in films like The Andromeda Strain and TV series like Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law…so it’s ironic that his most famous role was as the sarcastic, volatile George in Edward Albee’s stage play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Arthur Hill was born in 1922 in Melfort, a small Saskatchewan town in Canada. He studied pre-law at the University of British Columbia, where his attendance was interrupted by a stint in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. After the war, he returned to college with the goal of following in his father’s footsteps as a lawyer. He supported himself in school by working in radio and eventually became interested in acting.

He moved to Great Britain in 1948 and worked in radio, television, and on the stage. He built a strong resume of theatre credits before relocating to New York. His first Broadway role was opposite Ruth Gordon in The Matchmaker in 1955. He followed it with impressive performances in Look Homeward, Angel (1957), The Gang’s All Here (1959), and All the Way Home (1960). His stage career reached its pinnacle when he won the Tony for Best Actor as George opposite Uta Hagen’s Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962.

Throughout the late 1950s and the 1960s, Hill appeared regularly as a guest star in television series like The Fugitive, Route 66, The Invaders, and Mission: Impossible. He was in multiple episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The F.B.I., and The Name of the Game. His guest stint in the lawyer series The Defenders and Judd for the Defense foreshadowed his most famous TV role.

In 1971, Arthur Hill played the lead in the two-hour TV movie Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law. The resulting TV series ran on ABC from 1971-1974 and starred Hill as a compassionate, intelligent lawyer whose cases ranged from civil rights to murder. Lee Majors, David Soul, and (briefly) Reni Santoni each played Marshall’s assistant at various stages of the show’s run. The series performed modestly in the ratings, despite four “crossover episodes” with the much more successful Marcus Welby, M.D. (produced by the same company). The 1971 episode “Eulogy for a Wide Receiver” was directed by a young Steven Spielberg. Despite good reviews, even from the legal profession, Owen Marshall never captured the public’s fancy.

Hill’s most famous film role also came in 1971, when he starred as the head of a team of scientists trying to combat The Andromeda Strain (click on the title to read a film review). His other major film credits include Harper with Paul Newman, The Ugly American with Marlon Brando, and Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite.

After the cancellation of Owen Marshall, he focused on television, where he continued to be in demand as a guest star and for lead roles in made-for-TV movies. He gave outstanding performances as a judge fighting racial prejudice in the fact-based Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys (1976) and as Robby Benson’s father in Death Be Not Proud (1975), a moving true story of a young man dying of a brain tumor.

Arthur Hill was married twice. His first wife, Peggy Hassard, died in 1996. He was survived by his second wife, Anne-Sophie Taraba. Hill died in 2006 after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease.


  1. Rick, I always liked Arthur Hill. His lusting (Paul Newman's Harper calls him a dirty old man)after last weeks under rated performer in Harper is classic. I liked Owen Marshall too.

  2. I thought Arthur Hill made The Andromeda Strain the fantastic thriller that it is. He is a wonderful actor. Good choice.

  3. This was a fun post, Rick, and I appreciate your research. I especially liked Arthur Hill's appearances in the TV series "The Fugitive," "Route 66," and "Mission: Impossible." "The Andromeda Strain" is such an intriguing movie and I enjoyed the link you included to its write-up. Thank you!