Steven Hill, the actor who played District Attorney Adam Schiff on the NBC series Law & Order for 10 seasons, has died. He was 94 years old.
Hill had been a veteran of the stage and screen when he was cast to play Schiff in the Dick Wolf-created series, which debuted in 1990. He played the character in 229 episodes before retiring in 2000.
Hill’s son, Rabbi Yehoshua Hill, confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter that his father died on Tuesday.
Here’s a look at Hill’s life and career.
1. Schiff Was Inspired by the Real-Life New York District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau
The character of Schiff was reportedly inspired by Robert M. Morgenthau, who was the district attorney for New York County from 1975 until his retirement in 2009. He was 90 when he retired and is still alive at age 97.
When Morgenthau met Hill, he was angry that the actor was getting paid more for doing fictional work than he was for real work. “I was mad at him because I understood that he was getting $25,000 an episode, and I told him when he quit I wanted his job, and he didn’t tell me,” Morgenthau told CNN.
Despite his long tenure on Law & Order, Hill’s performance as the curmudgeon Schiff only earned him two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actor in 1998 and 1999.
In a statement to THR, Wolf said:
Steven was not only one of the truly great actors of his generation, he was one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. He is also the only actor I’ve known who consistently tried to cut his own lines. He will be missed but fortunately he can be seen ubiquitously on Law & Order reruns.
2. Hill Starred in the First Season of ‘Mission: Impossible’
Although Peter Graves is best known as the actor responsible for handing out missions at the beginning of each episode of Mission: Impossible, Hill played the original leader of the Impossible Missions Force. As The Hollywood Reporter notes, CBS was always wary of Hill’s casting as Daniel Briggs, but Lucille Ball, whose Desilu produced the show, convinced the network to let him have the job.
Hill stayed on for the entire first season, but his inability to film on Friday nights and Saturdays due to his faith as an Orthodox Jew made it difficult for him to stay on. CBS decided against renewing his contract, so Graves stepped in to play a new character.
3. He Became an Orthodox Jew After Being Inspired by a Play He Was Starring In & It Cost Him Roles
Hill, who was born Solomon Karkovsky in Seattle, was inspired to become an Orthodox Jew after starring in the play A Far Country in 1961 as Sigmund Freud. It is considered his most important role on the stage and was also an important role personally. The scene where Kim Stanley’s character yelled “You are a Jew!” at Freud led him to questioning his faith and his job as an actor.
Unfortunately, this made it very difficult for him to find work as a stage or movie actor. He even lost a part in the Steve McQueen movie The Sand Pebbles because of his unavailability.
After his difficult experience on Mission: Impossible, Hill decided to retire from acting.
4. He Starred Alongside Henry Fonda in the Original Production of ‘Mr. Roberts’
Hill’s dreams of being an actor were put on pause at first, since he served in the Navy for four years during World War II. When he returned to the U.S., he starred in the 1946 play A Flag is Born with Paul Muni and understudied for Marlon Brando. But his next job was the one that scored him fame. He starred with Henry Fonda in 1948’s Mr. Roberts, which ran over 1,100 performances.
“It was a thrilling time in my life,” Hill told the New York Times in 2005. “You could almost smell it from the very first reading that took place — this is going to be an overwhelming hit.”
Hill played Stefanowski and while Fonda was required for the movie version, Hill didn’t appear in it. In fact, Hill’s earliest credited movie role was 1950’s A Lady Without Passport with Hedy Lamarr. Hill’s early TV credits include appearances on Actors Studio and was an original member of the group that became The Actors Studio.
Hill took another break from acting in the early 1950s, returning to the Navy. In 1952, he picked up where he left off, appearing in countless TV shows and a few movies. HE appears in the 1963 Judy Garland movie A Child is Waiting.
5. He Took a Decade-Long Break From Acting & Tried Several Jobs Before Returning to Movies & TV
Hill Took a much longer break from acting in 1967 and tried the real estate business. But he was coaxed back to Hollywood by 1977 and starred in a string of great movies during the 1980s. He appeared in Barbra Streisand’s Yentl, the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Raw Deal, George Cukor’s Rich and Famous and Sidney Lumet’s Garbo Talks.
In 1990, his career changed when he was cast as Adam Schiff in Law & Order. He retired from acting permanently in 2000. Only Jerry Orbach, Sam Waterston and S. Epatha Merkerson starred in more episodes of Law & Order than Hill.
His last gig in front of a camera was as a spokesman for TD Waterhouse.
Hill is survived by his second wife, Rachel, his four children with his first wife and his five children with his second.