With his lean but bold and visually powerful approach, filmmaker Walter Hill's career proved that action films can be smart, stylish, and distinctive, and his movies put a fresh spin on the traditional themes of Westerns, crime dramas, and even buddy films
The son of a riveter who worked in shipbuilding, Hill was born in Long Beach, CA, on January 10, 1942. He briefly followed in his father's blue-collar footsteps, earning his living in oil drilling and construction, before focusing his career on the arts. Hill studied drawing for a spell in Mexico, and later enrolled at Michigan State University, where he received a degree in Journalism. In time, he developed a passion for filmmaking and moved back to California, where he earned his first movie credits as an assistant director on such pictures as The Thomas Crown Affair and Take the Money and Run. Hill next worked as a screenwriter; two films were based on his scripts in 1972: the dark crime drama Hickey and Boggs and Sam Peckinpah's adaptation of Jim Thompson's novel The Getaway. Hill's taut, muscular screenplays, sometimes written in blank verse, earned him a potent reputation in the industry, and, in 1975, he landed his first assignment as a director when he brought his own script, Hard Times, to the screen with Charles Bronson and James Coburn in the leads. While his next project as a writer/director, The Driver, earned a cult following, Hill's third feature really put him on the map. The Warriors earned both rave reviews and controversy; the tale of a New York street gang making its way home through unfriendly territory was accused of inspiring a number of violent incidents at theaters showing the film. However, it also earned a handsome profit, allowing Hill to take on two more ambitious projects: The Long Riders, a period Western in which a number of criminal siblings join forces, and Southern Comfort, an atmospheric suspense film about men on Army Reserve exercises who discover they're fighting a real war. The director then scored a blockbuster with the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte comedy 48 Hours. His subsequent movies tended to be more cult-oriented than bona fide hits, but Hill's sharp visual style and tough, street-smart scripts kept him in demand, and he earned some of his strongest reviews in years for his 2002 boxing-behind-bars drama Undisputed.
In 1979, Hill moved into producing, working behind the scenes on the sci-fi smash Alien, and helped produce most of his own films, as well as the successful HBO series Tales From the Crypt. He also helped end the career of the infamous and imaginary director Alan Smithee; Hill was hired to step in as director on the troubled sci-fi epic Supernova shortly before shooting began, but opted out of the project before editing was completed, and requested that his name be removed from the film. Since the Director's Guild of America's registered pseudonym for dissatisfied filmmakers, Alan Smithee, had become common knowledge in the wake of the comedy An Alan Smithee Film: Burn, Hollywood, Burn, a new assumed name was created to accommodate Hill -- Thomas Lee -- and the name Smithee was officially retired.