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updated 5/27/2008 12:53:31 PM ET 2008-05-27T16:53:31

Sydney Pollack was remembered Tuesday as a generous, unpretentious talent by the elite actors he directed in films such as “Out of Africa,” “Tootsie” and “Absence of Malice.”

Pollack, diagnosed with cancer about nine months ago, died Monday afternoon, surrounded by family, at his home in Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles, said his publicist, Leslee Dart. He was 73.

Unlike many other top directors of his era, Pollack was also a film and television actor himself, and he used this unique position to forge a relationship with Hollywood’s elite stars and create some of the most successful films of the 1970s and ’80s.

“I sort of straddle the line ... between personal movies and mainstream Hollywood,” he told The Associated Press in 1993.

In 1970, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” about Depression-era marathon dancers, received nine Oscar nominations, including one for Pollack’s direction. He was nominated again for best director for 1982’s “Tootsie,” starring Dustin Hoffman as a cross-dressing actor and Pollack as the exasperated agent who tells him, “I begged you to get some therapy.”

As director and producer, he won Academy Awards for the 1986 romantic epic “Out of Africa,” starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, which captured seven Oscars in all.

'A class act'
Last fall, Pollack played law firm boss Marty Bach opposite George Clooney in “Michael Clayton,” which he also co-produced. It received seven Oscar nominations.

“Sydney made the world a little better, movies a little better and even dinner a little better. A tip of the hat to a class act,” Clooney said in a statement. “He’ll be missed terribly.”

Video: Director Sydney Pollack dies Other A-listers Pollack directed include Sally Field and Paul Newman in “Absence of Malice,” Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn in “The Interpreter,” Robert Mitchum in “The Yakuza,” Tom Cruise in “The Firm,” and Redford in seven films: “This Property Is Condemned,” “Jeremiah Johnson,” “Three Days of the Condor,” “The Way We Were” with Barbra Streisand, “The Electric Horseman,” “Out of Africa” and “Havana.”

“I first met him while he was in the midst of editing ‘Tootsie,”’ Cruise said in a statement. “I’d seen every one of his pictures and he generously took the meeting. ... He spent over six hours, with the patience of Job, answering all my questions.”

“Throughout the years, unpretentious and never condescending, he shared with me what he loved about family, storytelling, food, flying and a great bottle of vino,” Cruise said. “He was a Renaissance man and a great friend. I will miss him dearly.”

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In later years, Pollack, who stood over six feet tall and had a striking presence on screen, devoted more time to acting, appearing in Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives,” Robert Altman’s “The Player,” Robert Zemeckis’ “Death Becomes Her” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”

On television, Pollack had an occasional recurring role on the NBC sitcom “Will & Grace” playing Will’s (Eric McCormack) father, and appeared in the “The Sopranos,” “Frasier” and “Mad About You.”

Video: Scoop on loss of Sydney Pollack His last screen appearance was in “Made of Honor,” a romantic comedy currently in theaters, where he played the oft-married father of star Patrick Dempsey’s character.

“Most of the great directors that I know of were not actors, so I can’t tell you it’s a requirement,” Pollack said at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2005. “On the other hand, it’s an enormous help.”

Pollack first met Redford when they acted in 1962’s low-budget “War Hunt,” and would go on to play a major role in making Redford a star. “It’s easy working with Bob; I don’t have to be diplomatic with him,” Pollack once told The Associated Press. “I know what he can and cannot do; I know all the colors he has. I’ve always felt he was a character actor in the body of a leading man.”

Pollack produced many independent films with the late Anthony Minghella and the production company Mirage Enterprises. His producing credits include “The Talented Mr. Ripley”; “Cold Mountain”; “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” a documentary that was the final film directed by Pollack; and the new HBO film “Recount,” about the 2000 presidential election.

Fell in love with theater
Sidney Irwin Pollack was born in Lafayette, Ind., to first-generation Russian-Americans. In high school in South Bend, he fell in love with theater, a passion that prompted him to forgo college, move to New York and enroll in the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater.

Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings Studying under the renowned Sanford Meisner, Pollack spent several years cutting his teeth in various areas of theater, eventually becoming Meisner’s assistant.

“We started together in New York and he always excelled at everything he set out to do, his friendships and his humanity as much as his talents,” Martin Landau, a longtime close friend and associate in the Actors Studio, said in a statement.

After appearing in a handful of Broadway productions in the 1950s, Pollack turned to directing. He began on TV series such as “Naked City” and “The Fugitive,” then moved to film. His first full-length feature was “The Slender Thread,” about a suicide help line.

The film was scored by Quincy Jones. “Sydney Pollack’s immense talents as a director were only surpassed by the compassion that he carried in his soul for his fellow man,” Jones said Monday.

Pollack said in 2005 that for “Tootsie,” Hoffman pushed him into playing the agent role, repeatedly sending him roses with a note reading, “Please be my agent. Love, Dorothy.” At that point, Pollack hadn’t acted in a movie in 20 years — since “The War Hunt” with Redford.

The love soon frayed as Pollack and Hoffman differed over whether the film should lean toward comedy or drama, and the tension spilled into the public arena. But the result was a hit at the box office and received 10 Oscar nominations, with Jessica Lange winning for best supporting actress.

“Stars are like thoroughbreds,” Pollack once told The New York Times. “Yes, it’s a little more dangerous with them. They are more temperamental. You have to be careful because you can be thrown. But when they do what they do best — whatever it is that’s made them a star — it’s really exciting.”

Pollack is survived by his wife, Claire; two daughters, Rebecca and Rachel; his brother Bernie; and six grandchildren.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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