Howard Zieff, the director of such comedies as Private Benjamin, Unfaithfully Yours and My Girl, has passed away this past Saturday, February 21, 2009 in Los Angeles from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 81.
Zieff came to films after a distinguished career as a top advertising print photographer and television commercial director, where he developed his flair for comedy in many of the campaigns he worked on. He also had a good idea for up-and-coming talent, having cast pre-fame Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Richard Dreyfuss in various commercials.
In the early 1970s, Zieff left advertising and headed from New York City to Hollywood. His feature directorial debut was the 1973 light-hearted crime caper Slither with James Caan, Peter Boyle and Sally Kellerman. He followed its moderate success with Hearts Of The West (1975) with Jeff Bridges and House Calls (1978) with Walther Matthau. For 1979’s The Main Event, Zieff reunited stars Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neil, whoi had had a big hit in 1972 with What’s Up, Doc?.
Zieff’s biggest success came with 1980’s Private Benjamin, which starred Goldie Hawn as a woman widowed on her wedding night who impulsively joins the Army with disastrous results. Best remembered for her character’s sparring with a drill sergeant played by Eileen Brennan, Hawn would receive an Academy Award nomination for her work in the film. Both Private Benjamin and House Calls would be spun off as short-lived television series, though Zieff was not involved with either endeavor.
For the 1984 Dudley Moore-starring Unfaithfully Yours, Zieff found himself remaking Preston Sturges’ 1948 original to mixed results. Zieff would draw on his advertising background for the 1989 Michael Keaton comedy The Dream Team.
His final two films were the 1991 coming-of-age dramedy My Girl and its 1994 sequel, My Girl 2.