Born in the small town of Lafayette, Indiana, Sydney Pollack stood as one of the only Russian-Jewish families in the city. Pollack did not enjoy those memories “It was a real cultural desert. There weren’t many Jews like us, and it was real anti-Semitic.”1 His father, David Pollack, a professional boxer, turned to pharmacy to provide for his family. Pollack’s mother, Rebecca, was a homemaker. Both his mother and father met at the University of Purdue and later married. At the age of 16 his parents filed for divorce. Soon after his mother’s life took a drastic turn for the worst. She died at the age of 37 due to alcohol abuse. Though Pollack experienced many challenges along the way, he chose to be positive, be silent about his views, and bring the best out in others.
In 1952 young Pollack graduated from South Bend High School. He took to acting and moved to New York enrolling at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Arts where he studied acting under Sanford Meisner. He stayed there for five years as Meisner’s assistant embracing realism in performance as his learning style. In 1955 Pollack had his first début in the Broadway show “The Dark is Light Enough” by Christopher Fry. “I knew I wasn’t going to be any great shakes as an actor; the way I looked I would play the soda jerk or the friend of a friend.”1 Soon after, Pollack served in the armed forces for two years then he returned to the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Arts where he taught acting. Ironically, it was there where he married one of his former students, Claire Griswold in 1958. Together they had three children; Steven, Rebecca, and Rachel. After starting a family, Pollack decided it was time to make a name for himself. In 1960 he became known for directing TV shows. Then he made his way onto the big screen in the War Hunt where Pollack met Robert Redford in 1962. As result Redford and Pollack became good friends and co-starred in several movies together.
In the midst of wars, elections, and laws, Pollack was not interested in using his movies to share his points. “I don’t consider myself a teacher of moral and political positions. I don’t want to be that. I can’t help but have a point of view when I make a film, but my first job is to entertain you.”2 Although his views were often evaluated against the subject matter of his movies, Pollack refrained from publicly expressing his opinions or beliefs. He experienced judgment throughout his lifetime but refrained from public expression, judging it as a form of prejudice.
Even though he was multi-talented, he lived in a time when political and religious views rang controversial and film making suffered miserably. He chose not to identify himself with any social and political perspective. Doing so kept him in the game. While others in the film industry sank, he was able to adjust and flow with the time. He leaned more on his Midwest background rather than his experience as a Jewish artist which gave him a “practical hard-nosed approach.”3 Communicating with an audience became his ultimate focus. Social reaction to a given situation or experience became his primary interest.
He did not have many challenges during his career; instead, he was presented many open doors. At the start of his acting career Pollack was offered a job by director John Frankanheimer to coach his two daughters, who would be featured in their father’s play, The Turn of a Screw. It was not uncommon for an actor to be hired as an acting coach. One year later Pollack met actor Burt Lancaster on the set of Frankenheimer’s play. Lancaster observed Pollack’s skills as he was still coaching Frankenheimer’s two daughters. Lancaster invited Pollack to his office. “Lancaster told me to come to his office one day and said ‘you should be a director,’ and I said I didn’t know anything about directing”1 This was a turning point in Pollack’s acting and now directing career. Lancaster insisted Pollack meet a good friend of his, Lew Wassermen, who was the owner of universal pictures and the chairman of MCA. Lancaster told Wassermen “I have a kid here, I don’t know if he can direct, but he’s got talent. In any case, he can’t be any worse than those bums you got workin’ for you now.”1 This resulted in Pollack getting a chance to direct an episode of Shotgun Slade. Pollack excelled in directing and soon found several opportunities fall into his lap.
Blacklisting is something most people would like to forget. In 1947 it began affecting Hollywood in the sense that actors, writers and directors were being fired because of their views. Blacklisting meant that anyone connected or assumed connected to communism or communist activities could be subject to imprisonment. Studios would not hire actors, writers, producers or directors on the blacklist. Pollack watched as several colleagues sank during that time. As this was happening in America, other countries suffered on a larger scale. As a result they built the Berlin Wall to separate the city into communist East Germany and Socialist West Germany in 1961. Then three years later in 1964 the Vietnam conflict towards communism began. The controversy surrounding this undeclared war was highly criticized within and without U.S creating anti-demonstrations and lack of support.
Over 30 years in his career, Pollack directed 21 big screen movies, including the two that won him Oscars; Tootsie and Out of Africa. Though the star Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman, and Pollack did not agree on the type of movie it should be, Pollack got his way and it is now known to be “one of the finest postwar American comedies.” Referring to Dustin Hoffman, Pollack is famous for saying, “Stars are like thoroughbreds. Yes, it’s a little more dangerous with them. They are more temperamental. You have to be careful because you can be thrown. But when they do what they do best; whatever it is that’s made them a star, it’s really exciting.”1 Out of Africa, based on the life of a storyteller, Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). It is known to be “Sydney Pollack’s single greatest success.”1 Pollack also acted in 34 plays, shows, and big screen movies such as Made of Honor, which premiered the day before his death.
Pollack brought himself out of the small town of Lafayette, Indiana knowing there was something more for him. He moved to New York where his talent was recognized both in the acting and directing fields. He was offered many opportunities and he took them all with the highest respect. After his long journey he became a world renowned director both valued as a person and an entertainer. It is interesting to note how little the teachings of Judiasm affected Mr. Pollack. For example, the Torah states in Deuteronomy 22:5, "The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God." The lighthearted Tootsie certainly helped remove the stigma of an "abomination" from cross dressing. Yet Sydney might have practiced the teachings of a famous Jewish rabbi who reminded his students of Leviticus 19:18 "love your nieghbor as yourself". "Sydney Pollack’s immense talents as a director were only surpassed by the compassion that he carried in his soul for his fellow man."1. After a battle from cancer Sydney Pollack died May 26, 2008
1 Kaufman, John, “Sydney Pollack – Master Craftsman”, www.cinemasmith.net/Sydney%20Pollack.htm 2008
2 Esther, John, “Sydney Pollack interview, ”http://www.progressive.org/mag_intv0206, February 2008
3 Walsh, David, “American filmmaker Sydney Pollack,” http://www.wsws.org/articles/2008/may2008/poll-m30.shtml, May 30, 2008
4. Bible, Matthew 5:44-43