Editor’s Note: The actor Steven Hill died last week at age 94. Hill’s decision in the early 1960s to become Orthodox made headlines and affected the course of his acting career. In 1966 he played the original leader of the Impossible Missions Force on the hit series “Mission: Impossible” but left after one year, at the height of the show’s popularity, because his filming schedule conflicted with his Sabbath observance.
After a hiatus that lasted more than a decade, Hill returned to acting in the 1980s and 1990s, appearing in a number of movies including “Yentl,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” Heartburn,” “The Firm,” and “Legal Eagles.”
Hill resumed his television career in a big way in 1990 when he took the role of district attorney Adam Schiff in the drama series “Law & Order,” a part he would play for 10 seasons.
In early 1969 – just two years after he left “Mission Impossible” and when many were wondering whether he regretted choosing Orthodox Judaism over TV stardom – Irene Klass, the late publisher of The Jewish Press, spoke with Hill. The interview appeared in the paper’s Feb. 7, 1969 issue.
It’s a far cry from Hollywood, California to Square Town, New York. But the person who decides to make the change might find it’s the best move he ever made. At least that’s been the experience of actor Steven Hill, original star of Television’s “Mission Impossible.”
Steve, tall and handsome, with dimples that appear whenever he smiles (which is often) looks more like a movie star than a Square chassid. But there’s no mistaking the influence Square Town has had on him. For it’s to the Squarer Rebbe that Steven Hill gives credit for his return to the Torah way of life – a life, as he says, “of meaning and purpose.”
The reader who remembers Mr. Hill as one of the top stars of the stage and television screen might have difficulty reconciling that image with the Steve Hill who wears a black velvet skullcap, dons phylacteries for morning services, and refrains from work on the Sabbath.
“But there’s really no mystery about it,” he says. “I simply found myself, that’s all.”
“For a long time I had been searching,” the actor said. “I used to ask myself, ‘Was I born just to memorize lines?’ I knew there had to be more to life than that. I was searching – trying to find the answers – to find myself – and I did.”
How did it actually come about, one wants to know. Steve sits back in his chair as if to refresh his memory, straightening his skullcap in the gesture familiar to religious Jews everywhere.
“About ten years ago,” he recalled, “I went home to Seattle to visit my parents. I was feeling depressed because I seemed to be leading an aimless existence. Oh sure, I was a star with all the glamour and everything. But something was missing. My life seemed empty – meaningless.”
At his father’s suggestion Steven attended services at the shul he used to frequent as a boy. Something began to stir in him. “I guess that was the beginning,” he said.
Back in California he started making the rounds of the synagogues – first the Reform and then the Conservative. But nothing much happened.
Then he came East on an assignment, sporting a beard for the Broadway role of Sigmund Freud. Seeking relaxation from the rigors of the theatre, Steve drove out to Square Town to watch the dancing of the chassidim he had heard so much about. But although he came to laugh, “he remained to pray.” For he found something here in these chassidim that he had not found anywhere else – a dedication and devotion to the Torah which gave them a certain serenity; a certain nobility of character; a certain truth and purpose to their lives. He saw a love of G-d so intense that it must find expression not only in their diligent observance of His commandments, but in the ecstatic chassidic dance.
Steve felt himself drawn by the spirit that moved them. The spark that had been kindled in the shul in Seattle became a fire that would not be quenched – that demanded to be fed. Nothing less than total commitment to Torah would do!
He began to study the Torah under the guidance of the Squarer Rebbe and was amazed at its “deep insights.” So many things became clear to him. “ ‘It’s like walking in a wilderness at night,’ ” he quoted Rav Elchanan Wasserman, zt”l. “ ‘Suddenly there’s a flash of lightning and everything is illuminated.’ That’s the way it is with the Torah – it illuminates everything,” he said so sincerely that you could see this was not just a passing fancy.
Once Steve had made up his mind that this was the life for him, nothing could change it. His movie contract, thereafter, stated that he would not work on Shabbos and Yom Tov; and that his clothes were to be non-shatnes. How did Hollywood react to this?
“They thought I was some kind of nut,” he grinned. “In Hollywood, you see, it’s the smart thing to do to go off on a `kick’ – any kind, even a religious `kick’ – but don’t make a pest of yourself by sticking to it or you are a weirdo.”
“Strange when you think about it,’ Steve said. “Some of these people put their very lives into the most meaningless things” – yet labeled him a fanatic for being equally committed to his religion. He shrugged his shoulders – the look on his face seemed to ask, “How ridiculous can you get?”
“The world’s absurd,” we agreed.
“Insane and abominable,” as Voltaire said; not the least example of which is the blatant sex and violence that greets you at every turn both in reel and in real life.
What did he think about this obsession with sex on screen and stage? Steve registered disgust. “What we left in Egypt three thousand years ago, the lunatics are bringing back now,” he said.Irene Klass