Sydney Pollack, actor and Oscar-winning director, dies at 73


Sydney Irwin Pollack, who died Monday at the age of 73, was a highly respected Hollywood director, producer and actor, and, in one part of his creative life, an inquisitive Torah student.

In the early 1980s, Pollack joined his friend Barbra Streisand in a study circle of high-profile Hollywood Jews while the actress was preparing for her role as a girl disguised as a yeshiva boy in the move “Yentl.”

The study group met twice a month for two years at a private home and was led alternately by UCLA Hillel director Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller and Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills’ Rabbi Laura Geller.

“Sydney had some basic Jewish knowledge, but his strength lay in his penetrating, incisive mind,” Seidler-Feller said. “We studied Genesis, but that was only the take-off point for wide-ranging discussions on many topics.”

Another student was talent agent Joan Hyler, who remembers Pollack as “highly inquisitive and intellectually probing.”

According to Seidler-Feller, Pollack expressed his Jewishness “by his concern for the principled life, his love of arguments, his desire to challenge people and make them think.”

The latter qualities were infused in his 20 feature films, including “Out of Africa” (1985), with Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, which rewarded Pollack with two Oscars as director and producer.

Pollack’s pictures were typically star-laden and earned both critical and commercial success. Among them were “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” with Jane Fonda, “The Way We Were” with Redford and Streisand, “Tootsie” with Dustin Hoffman and, most recently, “Michael Clayton” with George Clooney.

The director, who died of cancer at his home in Pacific Palisades, was born in Lafayette, Ind., the son of first-generation Russian Americans.

His father was a pharmacist and semi-pro boxer, who intended that his son become a doctor or dentist, but there wasn’t enough money to put him through college.

The family later moved to South Bend, Ind., and, according to a 1993 interview with The New York Times, his youthful years were not happy ones.

“I think of [the years] with great sadness,” Pollack said. “It was a cultural desert. There weren’t many Jews like us, and it was real anti-Semitic.”

Pollack and his wife, Claire Griswold, were married in 1958 and had one son, Steven, who died in a 1993 plane crash in Santa Monica, and two daughters, Rebecca and Rachel.