His name may not ring a bell, but right now you’re probably looking at Steven Hill’s picture and thinking, ”Oh, right, that guy.” Over a long, distinguished career Hill has become one of the most respected character actors in the business, responsible for many small epiphanies — like his heartbreaking scene as Christine Lahti’s father in Running on Empty and his pragmatic DA on TV’s Law & Order. In Billy Bathgate, Hill plays Dutch Schultz’s weary, wise business manager, Otto Berman, and the part may just end the 69-year-old actor’s anonymity. Not only is Hill billed, for once, above the credits, but he’s also on-screen as much as star Dustin Hoffman. And with his quiet authority, the gentle, self-effacing actor often steals the show.
Hill came of age in New York in the ’50s, during TV’s ”golden era” and the final great days of Broadway, so it’s not surprising that he holds the written word in high esteem. ”I try to get as much into the guts of what the writer intended as I can,” says Hill, admitting that Bathgate director Robert Benton (a writer himself) gave him the key character insight on Berman: He’s this film’s ”moral center.” Hill also found himself at the center of a most unusual cast, sharing the screen with Hoffman and the young Loren Dean in the title role. But that motley lineup never fazed him. ”I have a certain basic attitude after all this time,” he says. ”I really don’t seek to be center stage and pursue the spotlight. When the scene is mine, I know it’s mine, and I’ll play it. But for the most part, I love the give and take between actors. That’s where the joy is to me.” And for his audiences as well.