Three decades before winning an Oscar for co-editing the Ron Howard feature “Apollo 13,” Mike Hill paid his way through the University of Nebraska at Omaha as a WOW-TV assistant film editor. His job: splicing commercials into old movies for the late show. Among the classics he did this for were “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront.” It was a perfect job for the cinephile, who frequented the Orpheum, Omaha, State and Indian Hills. Only a few years later, as a Paramount Pictures apprentice editor, fate led Hill, who died Jan. 5 at age 73, to synch-screen dailies for the director of “Streetcar” and “Waterfront,” Elia Kazan.
The director’s “The Last Tycoon” (1976) was shooting on the lot. With the lead and assistant editors away in New York, the dailies job fell to Hill, who delighted in the opportunity. “Kazan was right up there in the pantheon to me,” Hill told this reporter. “He was very economical with what he shot. He let me edit a dialogue scene. Well, I’d never edited anything, but I said, ‘OK, sure.’ I was up all night trying to put this thing together. I showed it to him after dailies the next day and it was terrible. He chuckled and said, ‘Thanks for doing this, but you don’t have to make so many cuts. You can find a good take, and as long as it holds, you can stay with it.’”
Hill appreciated the tutorial. “He gave me all these little lessons that really stuck with me. It was really generous.”
Next mentoring Hill was New Hollywood maverick Hal Ashby. On his “Bound for Glory,” Ashby did post work in a rented house on Mulholland Drive. Editors Robert C. Jones and Pembroke Herring cut there. Ashby sometimes took a turn at the material. Hill soaked it all in. “I learned a lot from them.”
Getting to work on major films by iconic artists became master classes for Hill.
“It was one of those lucky things where it just kind of fell in my lap, along with practically my whole career,” he said. “I got to see the way these directors worked. It was really valuable.”
Heady stuff for a UNO criminal justice graduate who got hired to work in California’s penal system. Yet he managed to break into the screen industry, learning a craft that turned into a distinguished career. Notably, he and Dan Hanley formed one of Hollywood’s most successful editing teams, cutting every Ron Howard film from “Night Shift” (1982) through “In the Heart of the Sea” (2015). Hill retired due to health issues. Hanley considered Hill “a brother.” Hill regarded Hanley and Howard as family.
“It’s unusual two editors work together as a team with one director for that length of time,” Hill said. “When I look back at it, it’s pretty amazing.”
While editing “The Holdovers” in Omaha in 2022, Alexander Payne and his editor Kevin Tent lunched with Hill.
“We met at a Vietnamese restaurant and Mike arrived with his oxygen tank for a brief but utterly delightful meal,” Payne said. “He and Kevin compared notes about Mike’s generation of editors. I’d met Mike a few times in passing over the years, but this was to be the first and only time we had a meal together. He was a lovely man and an extremely talented film editor.”
Tent echoed the sentiment, noting, “He was such a sweet man and a great editor.”