Steven Hill showed the world that keeping Shabbos in Hollywood is not a Mission: Impossible
By: Ilan Preskovsky
With the avalanche of celebrity deaths that occurred throughout 2016, it became all too easy for some of the less instantly recognisable writers, musicians, and actors to get buried under the sheer magnitude of the loss of the likes of David Bowie, Carrie Fisher, Prince, or Alan Rickman. For practising Jews of all stripes, though, one perhaps lesser-known name (but quite recognisable face if you ever managed to catch one of the approximately seven trillion episodes of the hit show Law & Order over the years) that ought to resonate particularly profoundly is Steven Hill: one of the extremely rare Jewish Hollywood-actors who had a successful acting career, while being an observant Torah Jew at the same time.
A Most Unlikely Revelation
Hill was born Solomon Krakovsky in Seattle, Washington, to immigrant parents in 1922 and, though he only became strictly observant in the early 1960s, his career began with a part in the controversial Zionist play, A Flag is Born, some two years before the establishment of the State of Israel. The next sixteen years found Hill building himself up as a prolific stage, screen, and television actor, with notable parts in TV’s so-called “Golden Age” launching Hill to even greater heights of fame and acclaim.
Between his own family history, the sheer Jewishness of Hollywood at the time, and the fact that he married a nice Jewish girl in the form of Selma Stern in 1954 (to whom he was married until their divorce in 1964), Hill clearly never really left his Jewish roots too far behind, but his true return to Torah Judaism began in 1961 when he took the role of a 35-year-old Sigmund Freud in the stage play, A Far Country.
A pivotal moment in the play reflected the deep-seated anti-Semitism of Freud’s time as a patient (played by Kim Stanley) cried out to the famed psychiatrist, “You are a Jew!” and with those four small words, a fire was ignited (reignited?) in Hill that would greatly transform the rest of his life. Hearing those words, delivered with such power, night after night, forced Hill to re-examine everything he took for granted in his life. As Hill himself put it in a New York Times interview in 1983: “I slowly became aware that there was something more profound going on in the world than just plays and movies and TV shows. I was provoked to explore my religion.”
Shortly following this episode, under the tutelage of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Twersky (the Skverrer Rebbe), Hill turned to Torah Judaism. The decision to observe Shabbos according to halacha meant that Hill immediately had to withdraw from the stage, as Friday and Saturday have always been the biggest nights on Broadway. Fortunately, for a few years at least, he was able to find work in television, as it was far easier to work around his own requirements by scheduling production during the week or on Sundays.
Even TV, however, could only accommodate him up to a point. Things came to a head in a project that was to be his biggest to date: playing Daniel Briggs, the lead role in the classic TV show Mission: Impossible. Though Hill made his requirements of having the entirety of Friday night and Saturday off clear from the minute he was cast, the producers of the show were apparently unaware of just how disruptive even a day off would prove to be for production of the hit show. With tensions rising and Hill’s part in the show incrementally reduced as the season rolled on, Hill left the show at the end of the first season and proceeded to take the next ten years off to concentrate on his religious life and building a family with his second wife, Rachel, whom he married in 1967. During this time, he worked in real estate and as a writer in his new home, in a Jewish community in Rockland County, New York.
Of Law & Order
Hill returned to the small screen in 1977 with a role in an episode of the TV show The Andros Targets and worked consistently as a “character actor” for the next decade in both movies and TV, with appearances in everything from Yentl to Thirtysomething to Running on Empty. It wasn’t, however, until 1990 that Hill had the chance to recapture and, indeed, surpass his former glory.
Cast as one of the primary cast members in the mega-successful Law &Order, Hill found a long-term project that would both allow him to work around his religious commitments and make a real impact as an actor. He stayed with the show from 1990 to 2000, at which point he retired from acting for good, but along the way drew much acclaim and an Emmy nomination as Adam Schiff, the show’s principled district attorney. Indeed, by the time of his retirement, he had appeared in more episodes of the show than anyone in the cast and, in the twenty-year run of the show, was only ever surpassed in this achievement by three other cast members.
And yet, there was clearly more to his time on Law & Order than just a convenient, steady gig that happened to be massively popular. More than any of his other projects – save, of course, for explicitly Jewish stories like Yentl or A Flag is Born – Law & Order clearly spoke to Hill’s Jewishness on a profound, if perhaps subconscious level. Not only was his character based on the real-life, Jewish district attorney Robert Morgenthau, but the very nature of the show must surely have appealed to someone who, like most Torah Jews, spent much of his time immersed in the legal intricacies of the Talmud and, by extension, valued justice (or, put another way, law and order) as one of the bedrocks of his Jewish faith.
As Dick Wolf, the creator and executive producer of the entire Law & Order franchise, put it, “Steven had more moral authority than anyone in episodic TV … [and provided] the Talmudic influence on the entire Zeitgeist of the series.” This level of obvious respect also helped to make Law & Order a wholly different and infinitely more pleasurable working experience for Hill than his other big television series, Mission: Impossible. Consider Hill’s own take on his experience: “I think probably because of all years and time that has gone by, I enjoy my work far more than I ever did before – certainly more than I did in my early years when it took a lot of effort to do the best job I wanted to do. Now it is more of a joy and much more exciting.”
It clearly wasn’t just Hill’s own maturity and readjusted world-view that made such a difference, though. Whether it was a change in Hollywood in general or just a specific contrast between the production of Law & Order and Mission: Impossible, the difference couldn’t be more profound. His faith was clearly treated with as much respect and admiration by the producers of Law & Order as it was treated with contempt and impatience by their Mission: Impossible counterparts, with whom Hill notoriously clashed endlessly.
Retirement, Death, and Legacy
With his retirement at the turn of the century, Schiff spent the rest of his life with his family and his religion, apparently, by all accounts, growing in his Judaism and becoming more and more attached to the Chassidic sect that brought him back to his religion four decades before. He died in Manhattan at the age of 94 on 23 August 2016.
He has left behind an impressive legacy from both parts of his life. Personally, he left behind his beloved wife, Rachel, along with nine children, including the well-known Rebbee Hill (Rabbi Yehoshua Hill), a beloved educator, who is particularly well known for his recordings that teach children about the most fundamental aspects of Judaism. Professionally, he has left the world with an impressive selection of stage, television, and film work, but, perhaps most notably, it’s clear that Hill’s ability to balance his own religious observance with his work on what was arguably the biggest show at the time, paved the way for someone like Mayim Biyalik to do the same with her role on The Big Bang Theory.
His may not be the most well-known celebrity death of 2016, but for any future Jews attracted to the arts, it clearly is one of the most significant.