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The Moment Steven Hill Knew He Had to Become Closer to His Jewish Faith

Hill, who died this week at the age of 94, once asked himself: ‘Was I born just to memorize lines?’

Jonathan Zalman
August 25, 2016

In the Feb. 7, 1969 edition of The Jewish Press, Irene Klass, the former publisher of the newspaper, wrote an article called “Steven Hill’s Mission IMpossible.” The title, of course, was a nod to Hill’s lead role as Dan Briggs on TV’s Mission Impossible—a role he held onto for just one year, in part because of certain “difficulties,” including the actor’s refusal to work late on Shabbat. Hill died Tuesday in Monsey, New York, where he lived for decades. He was 94.

Hill, who was born Solomon Krakovsky, became Orthodox in the early 1960s. His friend Rabbi Mayer Schiller, who’s based in Monsey and called the actor a mentor, said he remembers the day they met in 1964, during a series of visits Hill took to the village of New Square, which coincided with Schiller’s own internal search for meaning. Also there was Skverer Rebbe Yaakov Yosef Twersky. “The very first time we met, he turned to me and said, ‘He’s the Rebbe, he’s a very holy man,’” Schiller recalled.

Hill’s devotion to his Jewish practice is rarely seen today in the life of a major Hollywood or Broadway actor. Klass’s interview with Hill in 1969 highlights the actor’s choice to become a practicing Orthodox Jew, or “his return to the Torah way of life—a life, he says, ‘of meaning and purpose.’”

Steven Hill as Dan Briggs on ‘Mission Impossible’ (1966). (Wikimedia)
Steven Hill as Dan Briggs on ‘Mission Impossible’ (1966). (Wikimedia)
[T]here’s really no mystery about it. I simply found myself, that’s all. For a long time I had been searching. 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.

What’s fantastic about Klass’s interview with Hill is how she got him to open up about the events leading up to his moment of clarity—that is, when he knew that becoming closer to Orthodoxy was a way toward fulfillment.

About 10 years ago, 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.

So Hill went to shul with his father, where he used to go as a child. He went to a Reform synagogue, then a Conservative one, but neither stuck. Still, the spark of Judaism was there, it just needed to turn into a flame. Eventually, he traveled to New Square (once with a beard for a role as Sigmund Freud), and he began to study Torah with the Skverer Rebbe, who provided him with “deep insights.”

Once Steven 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 Shabbas and Yom Tov; and that his clothes would be non-shatnes.

Hill’s acting career spanned decades—he took a 10-year leave of absence beginning in 1967—and it perhaps culminated with a role as Adam Schiff on Law & Order. Dick Wolf, the show’s creator, once called Hill “the Talmudic influence on the entire zeitgeist of the series.”

“Steven always said to me that he enjoyed acting much more after he became religious,” said Schiller, who also worked with Hill on his autobiography, which never came to fruition. “Acting was his essence before he became religious, therefore he would agonize over it. After he became religious, acting was something which he did that he enjoyed. But it wasn’t his full definition.”

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.

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