After briefly attending Utah State University, Hal Ashby worked in a minor capacity at the Universal script department. Moving to Republic Studios in 1953, he became an assistant film editor, graduating to full editor in 1963. Four years later, Ashby won the Best Editing Oscar for his work on In the Heat of the Night. He made his directorial debut with 1970's The Landlord, then became the fair-haired boy of the cult-movie circuit with his film Harold and Maude (1971), the bittersweet saga of the offbeat relationship between a death-obsessed young man and a freewheeling elderly woman. Ashby's subsequent track record as a director was remarkable, including such now-classic efforts as The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979). His strength lay in a facile adaptability to the widely divergent talents of actors ranging from Jon Voight to Jack Nicholson. Ashby's winning streak was broken by the sloppily self-indulgent Second-Hand Hearts (1981), after which he wielded the megaphone on such indifferent efforts as The Slugger's Wife (1984) and Eight Million Ways to Die (1985). He died of cancer in 1988.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Grew up in a Mormon household.
- His parents' divorce and father's suicide led to difficulty in school; he dropped out during his senior year.
- Hitchhiked to Los Angeles in 1953.
- Began his Hollywood career working as an office clerk at Universal Studios in 1957. While there, learned film editing with the goal of becoming a director.
- After an Oscar win for editing In the Heat of the Night, he partnered with graphic artist Pablo Ferro and helped design the multiple-screen sequencing in The Thomas Crown Affair, to much acclaim.
- Mentor Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night) removed himself as director of 1970's The Landlord and recommended Ashby; it was his directorial debut.
- The controversial Vietnam War-themed Coming Home (1978) did not please the distributors at United Artists, who deemed it anti-American and opened it in February, generally not a good time for Oscar consideration. Despite the association with "Hanoi Jane" Fonda and the reclusive hippie director, the film ultimately earned eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Director, Best Picture and Best Actress for Fonda (who won).
- Died of liver and colon cancer in 1988.