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Hal Ashby 1929-1988

Country : Ogden, UT
Profession : Film Director
Date of birth : 1929-09-02
Date of death : 1988-12-27
Cause of Death : Cancer

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Early Life

Born William Hal Ashby in Ogden, Utah, Ashby grew up in a Mormon household and had a tumultuous childhood as part of a dysfunctional family which included the divorce of his parents, his father's suicide and his dropping out of high school. Ashby was married and divorced by the time he was seventeen.

Hollywood and career peaks

As Ashby was entering adult life, he moved from Utah to California where he quickly became an assistant film editor. His big break occurred in 1967 when he won the Academy Award for Film Editing for In the Heat of the Night. Ashby has often stated that film editing provided him with the best film school background outside of traditional university study and he carried the techniques learned as an editor with him when he began directing.

At the urging of its director, Norman Jewison, Ashby directed his first film, The Landlord, in 1970. While his birth date placed him squarely within the realm of the prewar generation, the filmmaker quickly embraced the hippie lifestyle, adopting vegetarianism and growing his hair long before it became de rigueur amongst the principals of the Hollywood Renaissance. In 1970 he married actress Joan Marshall, today probably best known for her guest appearance in the Star Trek episode "Court Martial" as antagonistic prosecutor Arleen Shaw. While they remained married until his death in 1988, the two had separated by the mid-seventies, with Marshall never forgiving Ashby, along with Warren Beatty, and Robert Towne for dramatizing certain unflattering elements of her life in Shampoo.

Over the next 16 years, Ashby directed several acclaimed and popular films, including the off-beat romance Harold and Maude and the social satire Being There with Peter Sellers, resuscitating the career of a brilliant actor who many felt had lapsed into self-parody. Ashby's greatest commercial success was the aforementioned Warren Beatty vehicle Shampoo, although the director effectively ceded control of the production over to his star. Bound for Glory, a muted biography of Woody Guthrie starring David Carradine, was the first film to utilize the Steadicam.

Aside from Shampoo, where he was by all accounts a creative adjunct to Beatty and Towne, Ashby's most commercially successful film was the Vietnam War drama Coming Home. Starring Jane Fonda and Jon Voight, both in Academy Award-winning performances, it was for this film that Ashby earned his only Best Director nomination from the Academy for his work. As Voight had reportedly been difficult and uncooperative during production, many feel that it was Ashby's skillful editing of a particularly melodramatic scene which earned him the award. Arriving in the post-Jaws and Star Wars era, from a production standpoint Coming Home was one of the last films to encapsulate the ethos of the New Hollywood era, earning nearly $15 million dollars in returns and rentals on a minuscule $3 million budget.


Because of his critical and (relative) commercial success, shortly after the success of Coming Home Ashby formed a production company under the auspices of Lorimar. Entering into a drug-induced spiral after Being There (his last film to achieve widespread attention), Ashby became notoriously reclusive and eccentric, retreating to his spartan beachfront abode in Malibu, where he smoked prodigious amounts of marijuana and frequently refused to eat in the presence of other people.

The productions of Second-Hand Hearts and Lookin' to Get Out − a Las Vegas caper film that reunited him with Voight and featured Voight's young daughter, Angelina Jolie − were plagued by the director's increasingly erratic behavior, such as pacifying former girlfriends by hiring them to edit Lookin' To Get Out. Studio executives grew less tolerant of his increasingly perfectionist editing techniques, exemplified by his laboring over a montage set to the Police's "Message in a Bottle" for nearly six months. Initially set to helm Tootsie after two years of laborious negotiations, reports of these bizarre tendencies resulted in his dismissal shortly before production commenced.

Shortly thereafter, Ashby − a longtime Rolling Stones fan − accompanied the group on their 1981 American tour, in the process filming the documentary Let's Spend the Night Together. The occupational hazards of the road were too much for Ashby, who overdosed before a show in Phoenix, Arizona. Although the film was eventually completed, it was relegated to cable TV.

The Slugger's Wife, with a screenplay penned by renowned playwright Neil Simon, continued the losing streak. Ostensibly a commercially-minded romantic comedy, Simon was reportedly horrified when he viewed Ashby's rough cut of the first reel, sequenced as an impressionistic mood piece with the first half hour featuring minimal dialogue. Remaining defiant in his squabbles with producers and Simon, Ashby was eventually fired in the final stages of production; the completed film was a critical and commercial failure. 8 Million Ways to Die, written by Oliver Stone, fared similarly at the box office; by this juncture Ashby's post-production antics were considered to be such a liability that he was fired by the production company on the final day of principal photography.


Attempting to turn a corner in his declining career, Ashby ceased to use drugs, trimmed his hair and beard, and began to frequent Hollywood parties wearing a navy blue blazer so as to suggest that he was once again "respectable". Despite these efforts, word of his unreliable reputation had spread throughout the entertainment industry and he could only find work as a television director, helming the pilots for Beverly Hills Buntz (a Dennis Franz vehicle that purloined the premise of Beverly Hills Cop and lasted for thirteen episodes) and Jake's Journey (a planned collaboration in the Arthurian sword and sorcery vein with Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame that never came to fruition because of the creators' ailing health).

Longtime friend Warren Beatty advised Ashby to seek medical care after he complained of various medical problems, including undiagnosed phlebitis; he was soon diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that rapidly spread to his lungs, colon and liver. Some friends of Ashby grew incensed when his girlfriend Grif Griffis who had been by his side day in and day out insisted upon homeopathic treatments after all medical treatments had failed, and refused to let them see him. Ashby died on December 27, 1988 at his home in Malibu, California.

Sean Penn's directorial debut The Indian Runner is dedicated to Ashby and his contemporary, pioneering independent filmmaker/actor John Cassavetes.


Today Ashby stands as an underappreciated filmmaker of the New Hollywood era, with only one web site dedicated to his works and no critical retrospectives of note as of 2006. Some have attributed this to his lack of a distinctive "style", with his oeuvre ranging from heartfelt drama to dark, biting social satire to farcial comedies with no consistent pattern. Being There has always elicited the most criticism, but this is mostly in regard to its controversial ending. In the opinion of actor Bruce Dern, "What happened to Hal Ashby, both what he did to himself and what they did to him, was as repulsive as anything I've seen in my forty years of the industry".

A biography written by Nick Dawson entitled "Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel" is set to be published in March 2009.

Filmography (as director)

  • The Landlord (1970)
  • Harold and Maude (1971)
  • The Last Detail (1973)
  • Shampoo (1975)
  • Bound for Glory (1976)
  • Coming Home (1978)
  • Being There (1979)
  • Second-Hand Hearts (1981)
  • Lookin' to Get Out (1982)
  • Let's Spend the Night Together (1983)
  • Solo Trans (1984)
  • The Slugger's Wife (1985)
  • 8 Million Ways to Die (1986)
  • Jake's Journey (1988) (TV)


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