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An early career in television documentaries helped to shape the degree of verisimilitude that informed much of Taylor Hackford's efforts as a director and producer in Hollywood. After proving his skill with real-life subjects, he ventured into features, where he fared best with biopics - especially those based on the lives of rock 'n' roll pioneers like Ritchie Valens in "La Bamba" (1987) and Ray Charles in "Ray" (2004). His efforts outside this genre were met with varying degrees of success - the sudsy "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982) and "Against All Odds" (1984) won many moviegoers' hearts, but later projects like "White Nights" (1985) and "Everybody's All-American" (1988) yielded uneven results. Feature length documentaries proved to be his most satisfying milieu, with "Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll" (1987) and the Muhammad Ali fight story "When We Were Kings" (1996) earning him praise from critics and viewers alike. Films like these solidified Hackford's status as a director with an uncanny knack for capturing the drama inherent in everyday lives.
Born Taylor Edwin Hackford in Santa Barbara, CA on Dec. 31, 1944, his initial passions lay with international relations, which he studied while pursuing a degree in pre-law at the University of Southern California. After graduation in 1968, he headed to Bolivia as part of the Peace Corps, where he began experimenting with a Super-8 camera in his spare time. Using film to document the world around him quickly began his abiding interest, so he abandoned law in favor of a film degree from USC's School of Cinema. Wishing to apply his talents to the real world, he took a job in the mailroom at the Los Angeles public television station KCET-TV. The position served as a training ground for the aspiring director, who quickly moved up to the station's cultural programming department. There, he was among the first in the country to present uninterrupted broadcasts of musical performances from the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Cat Stevens and Leon Russell. Hackford's work soon earned him a position with the station's news department, where his work as an investigative reporter earned him two Emmys and an Associated Press Award.
He graduated to feature film documentaries in 1973, beginning with "Bukowski," a portrait of the legendary Los Angeles poet that earned him considerable acclaim. By the mid-1970s, his exploration of dramatic films won him an Oscar for Best Live-Action Short film with "Teenage Father" (1978). Two years later, he tackled his first full-length feature, "The Idolmaker" (1980). Based on the life of music promoter Bob Marucci, the film told the story of a ruthlessly ambitious manager (Ray Sharkey) whose desire to control every aspect of his talent's lives leads to his downfall. A modest success with audiences, it gave him the leverage to make his next picture, which would also be his first blockbuster hit.
"An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982) made a star out of Richard Gere as a rebellious young man who falls in love with a factory girl (Debra Winger) while enduring grueling pilot's training at the hands of a tough Marine drill sergeant (Louis Gossett Jr.). An old-fashioned throwback to military romances of the 1940s, its unabashed sentimentality won over audiences to the tune of $130 million, and earned Oscars for Gossett and its theme song, "Up Where We Belong" performed by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes. He quickly followed it with "Against All Odds" (1984), an equally overheated love story based on the classic noir thriller "Out of the Past" (1948). Jeff Bridges was top-billed as an ex-football star hired to track down the girlfriend (Rachel Ward) of his shady nightclub owner pal (James Woods). The picture was met with a mixed response by theatergoers and critics, but as with "Officer," its theme song - the overwrought "Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)" by Phil Collins - was a sizable hit as well as an Academy Award nominee.
Hackford continued in the classic Hollywood vein with "White Nights" (1985), a flashy but insubstantial drama about American and Russian dancers (Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov, respectively) who literally dance their way out of the former Soviet Union's repressive regime. Again, the film's soundtrack yielded another Oscar-winning theme song, the turgid ballad "Say You, Say Me" by Lionel Richie, as well as another tear-jerking tune by Phil Collins, "Separate Lives." "White Nights" was also notable as the film where Hackford met his future wife, acclaimed actress Helen Mirren, whom he married in 1997.
Hackford served as producer for the critically acclaimed "La Bamba" (1987), which paid tribute to pioneering Latino rocker Ritchie Valens, whose life was cut short at the peak of his success in the early 1950s. It too yielded a hit soundtrack driven by the Los Angeles band Los Lobos, who recreated Valens' hits with uncanny accuracy. He followed this with "Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll" (1987), which celebrated the rock and R&B hits of the legendary guitarist while casting an unflinching eye at his checkered past. The film's chief raison d'etre was a spectacular all-star jam session which saw Berry tearing through his biggest hits, backed by a band that included Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and countless other top musicians. A National Board of Review winner for Best Documentary, the film was praised as a return to form for its director.
However, his next effort, "Everybody's All-American" (1988), was viewed as a step back towards soap opera-style productions like "An Officer and a Gentleman." Based on the novel by Sports Illustrated writer Frank DeFord, the convoluted story followed the life of an acclaimed college football star (Dennis Quaid) whose early victories are overshadowed by trials in his adult life, including marital infidelity, business failures and his own mortality. Overplayed by its cast, which included Jessica Lange and Timothy Hutton, the film suffered from its ponderous scope and a desperate need for some judicious editing.
The film also served as the starting point for a long period of largely underrated or unseen pictures by Hackford as either producer or director. Through his New Visions Pictures slate, he oversaw "Rooftops" (1989), one of Robert Wise's final stints in the directorial chair, as well as the civil rights drama "The Long Walk Home" (1990), the indie character piece "Queens Logic" (1991), and the Latino gang drama "Blood In Blood Out" (1993), on which he also served as director. None of the films made much of an impact during their brief theatrical releases, as did "Dolores Claiborne" (1995), a seemingly sure-fire hit which reunited Kathy Bates with the works of Stephen King, which had brought her an Oscar with 1990's "Misery." However, it struggled to find a release date and opened to tepid business, due perhaps to its gloomy subject matter and cinematography.
Hackford rebounded in 1996 with "When We Were Kings," an engrossing documentary about the iconic 1974 boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire. Built from footage originally shot by Leon Gast, Hackford incorporated commentary on the fight's historical and cultural importance by Spike Lee, Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, among others, and produced a genuinely thrilling film that echoed the excitement of the fight itself. A hit at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, it went on to win the 1997 Oscar for Best Documentary Film.
His next turn as director, "The Devil's Advocate" (1997), drew ticket buyers on the strength of Keanu Reeves' matinee idol looks and the promise of a truly juicy performance by Al Pacino as the head of a legal firm whose pedigree was decidedly diabolical. But he stumbled again with "Proof of Life" (2000), a hostage drama about a negotiator (Russell Crowe) who falls for the wife (Meg Ryan) of a man held captive by South American rebels. Its tepid box office was quickly overshadowed by tabloid reports that its stars had also conducted an off-screen affair, which led to a much publicized breakup between Ryan and husband Dennis Quaid. He also endured reported run-ins with his temperamental star, Crowe, who later dismissed Hackford in interviews as one of his least favorite directors that he had worked with up to that point. The fact that the film may have suffered from the scandal of the America's Sweetheart having an affair with her Aussie leading man was more than likely the reason for the film's poor showing and Hackford stood up for his film whenever called upon to do so.
Hackford was largely absent from filmmaking until 2004, when "Ray" brought him back to national attention. A project 15 years in the making, Hackford lent his documentarian's eye to the heroic life of singer Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx), who overcame blindness, drug addiction and racism to help shape the sound of popular music in the 1950s and 1960s. Though its script favored simplistic depictions of Charles' life, Hackford tapped into the energy of the man's music, which was buoyed immeasurably by Foxx's astonishing, Oscar-winning performance. Hackford himself received an Oscar nomination for his efforts, erasing any memory of the sour experience of both shooting and promoting "Proof of Life."
In 2005, Hackford returned to television as the executive producer of "E-Ring" (NBC, 2005-06), a political drama set at the Pentagon with his former "Blood In Blood Out" star Benjamin Bratt and Dennis Hopper as opposing military advisors. However, the show's tenure proved short live, and Hackford was back to developing feature film projects and walking many a red carpet on the arm of his often-nominated and Academy Award-winning wife, Helen Mirren.
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Served as a Peace corps volunteer in Bolivia
Helmed documentary "Bukowski"; also wrote
Produced concert special "Bonnie Raitt and Paul Butterfield" for PBS
Filmmaking debut, wrote, produced, and directed Oscar-winning short "Teenage Father"
Feature directing debut, "The Idolmaker" starring Ray Sharkey
Directed first hit film "An Officer and a Gentleman"
Feature producing debut, "Against All Odds"; also directed
Met future wife Helen Mirren during filming of "White Nights"
First feature produced, without also directing, "La Bamba"
Directed feature-length music documentary "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll!"
Merged his company with New Century Entertainment to form New Century/New Visions
Feature debut as executive producer, "Rooftops"
Produced music documentary special "Rick Nelson: It's All Right Now" for The Nashville Network
New Visions Pictures dissolved
Refocused on directing with "Bound by Honor," depicting gang wars in California jails during 1980s
Directed feature film adaptation of Stephen King's "Dolores Claiborne"
Produced documentary "When We Were Kings," about the famous 'Rumble in the Jungle' heavyweight championship match between Ali and Foreman
Directed "The Devil's Advocate," with Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino
Produced and directed "Proof of Life," starring Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe
Produced and directed "Ray," the story of legendary blues singer Ray Charles starring Jamie Foxx in title role; earned Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for Best Picture; also earned Oscar nomination for Best Director; nominated by Directors Guild of America for Outstanding Directorial Achievement
Produced and directed "Love Ranch," based on true story of a married couple who opened first legal brothel in Nevada; wife Helen Mirren starred in film
Directed Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez in crime thriller "Parker"