By Will Dunham
(Reuters) - Versatile and prolific Canadian film director Arthur Hiller, whose sentimental "Love Story" starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal was the biggest hit of 1970 and stands as one of the most popular romantic movies ever made, died on Wednesday at the age of 92, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences said.
Hiller, whose work also included successful collaborations with playwrights Neil Simon and Paddy Chayefsky, died of natural causes in Los Angeles, the Academy said in a statement.
The director was the president of the Academy, which hosts Hollywood's annual Oscars ceremony, from 1993 to 1997, and served as a longtime member on the organization's Directors Branch.
Current Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs said the organization was "deeply saddened" by Hiller's death.
"I was a member of the Board during his presidency and fortunate enough to witness firsthand his dedication to the Academy and his lifelong passion for visual storytelling," Boone Isaacs said.
Hiller directed more than 30 films from 1957 through 2006 covering a range of genres including comedies, dramas, tearjerkers, war stories, satires and musicals. He guided five different actors - O'Neal, MacGraw, George C. Scott, Maximilian Schell and John Marley - to Oscar-nominated performances.
His films were nominated for 15 Academy Awards, winning two. Hiller's adventure comedy "Silver Streak" marked the first screen pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor and became one of the top box office hits of 1976.
Hiller also collaborated with Chayefsky on two notable films - the anti-war comedy "The Americanization of Emily" (1964) starring James Garner and Julie Andrews and the dark satire "The Hospital" (1971) starring Scott.
He joined forces with Simon for the comedies "The Out of Towners" (1970) with Jack Lemmon and "Plaza Suite" (1971) with Walter Matthau.
"Love Story," Hiller's biggest success, was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture and Hiller as best director. It won only one Oscar, for best original score, as "Patton," starring Scott, swept the top awards.
"Love Story" was a tale of ill-fated lovers - privileged Oliver (O'Neal) and working-class Jennifer (MacGraw). It featured one of the most famous movie lines of the 1970s: "Love means never having to say you're sorry."
It was uttered twice: once by MacGraw to O'Neal and then at the end of the movie by O'Neal to his judgmental and disapproving father, played by Ray Milland.
"I LITERALLY HAD TO SWEAR"
Hiller said "Love Story" nearly did not get made.
"Paramount (film studio) was in rocky financial shape," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. "They'd sold off part of the lot and moved their offices to Beverly Hills - although I never understood how they figured to save money that way.
"But Bob Evans, who was running the studio then, loved the project. And he said we could make if I would swear - and I literally had to swear - that I would bring it in for under $2 million," Hiller added, noting that he finished the movie under budget.
"Love Story" was a colossal hit, generating more than $100 million at the box office.
When Hiller received a special humanitarian award at the Academy Awards ceremony in March 2002, it was MacGraw and O'Neal who presented it. "Thank you, Mama. Thank you, Papa. It feels humbling to receive a humanitarian award for doing what my parents brought me up to do," Hiller told the audience.
Hiller was an influential figure in Hollywood, heading the Director's Guild of America from 1989 to 1993, before his stint as Academy president.
From the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, Hiller also directed episodes of numerous TV shows including "Playhouse 90," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Perry Mason," "Gunsmoke," and even the first episode of the classic dark TV comedy "The Addams Family."
Hiller was particularly proud of "The Americanization of Emily," which explored a love affair pairing Andrews as a British war widow and Garner as a U.S. officer. "It's the only one of my films I can sit through and not want to redo while I'm watching it," Hiller told the Los Angeles Times.
Some critics tagged the movie as anti-American, which Hiller said was wrong. "It was never anti-American. It's anti the glorification of war. Don't make war seem so wonderful that kids want to be heroes; that's what it was saying," he said.
Some of Hiller's other films included the musical "Man of La Mancha" (1972) with Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren, "Author! Author!" (1982) with Al Pacino, "The Lonely Guy" (1984) with Steve Martin, "Outrageous Fortune" (1987) with Bette Midler and "The Babe" (1992) with John Goodman as Babe Ruth.
Hiller was born on Nov. 22, 1923, in Edmonton to parents who had come from Poland first to New York and then to Canada.
During World War Two, he flew bombing raids for the Royal Canadian Air Force over Germany. He studied psychology in college, then began his career in radio in Canada before moving to Los Angeles to direct a live TV drama series.
Hiller is survived by his daughter, Erica Hiller Carpenter, his son, Henryk, and five grandchildren. Gwen Hiller, his wife of 68 years, died in June.
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; editing by Bill Trott and Diane Craft)