Sydney Pollack was born in Lafayette, Indiana, to a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, the son of Rebecca (née Miller) and David Pollack, a semi-professional boxer and pharmacist. The family relocated to South Bend and his parents divorced when he was young. His mother, who suffered from alcoholism and emotional problems, died at the age of 37 while Pollack was a student.
Despite earlier plans to attend college and then medical school, Pollack left Indiana for New York City soon after finishing high school at age 17. Pollack studied acting with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre from 1952–54, working on a lumber truck between terms.
After two years' army service, ending in 1958, he returned to the Playhouse at Meisner’s invitation to become his assistant. In 1960, John Frankenheimer, a friend of Pollack, asked him to come to Los Angeles in order to work as a dialogue coach for the child actors on Frankenheimer's first big picture, The Young Savages. It was during this time that Pollack met Burt Lancaster who encouraged the young actor to try directing.
Pollack played a director in The Twilight Zone episode "The Trouble with Templeton" in 1961. But he found his real success in television in the 1960s by directing episodes of series, such as The Fugitive and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. After doing TV he made the jump into film with a string of movies that drew public attention. His film-directing debut was The Slender Thread (1965). Over time, Pollack's films received a total of 48 Academy Award nominations, winning 11 Oscars. His first Oscar nomination was for his 1969 film They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, and his second in 1982 for Tootsie. For his 1985 film Out of Africa starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, Pollack won Academy Awards for directing and producing.
During his career, he directed 12 different actors in Oscar-nominated performances: Jane Fonda, Gig Young, Susannah York, Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Melinda Dillon, Jessica Lange, Dustin Hoffman, Teri Garr, Meryl Streep, Klaus Maria Brandauer and Holly Hunter. Only Young and Lange won Oscars for their performances in one of Pollack's films.
His disputes with Hoffman during the filming of Tootsie became well known. Eventually Hoffman began pushing the idea that Pollack play the role of his agent, and Pollack reluctantly agreed despite not having had any film roles in 20 years. Their off-screen relationship added authenticity to their scenes in the movie, most of which feature them arguing. Pollack subsequently took on more acting roles in addition to producing and directing. He appeared as himself in the documentary One Six Right, describing his joy in owning and piloting his Cessna Citation X jet aircraft.
One of a select group of non- and/or former actors awarded membership in The Actors Studio, Pollack resumed acting in the 1990s with appearances in such films as The Player (1992) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999), often playing corrupt or morally conflicted power figures. As a character actor, Pollack appeared in films such as A Civil Action, and Changing Lanes, as well as his own, including Random Hearts and The Interpreter (the latter also being his final film as a director). He also appeared in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives as a New York lawyer undergoing a midlife crisis, and in Robert Zemeckis's Death Becomes Her as an emergency room doctor. His last role was as Patrick Dempsey's father in the 2008 romantic comedy Made of Honor, which was playing in theaters at the time of his death. He was a recurring guest star on the NBC sitcom Will & Grace, playing Will Truman's (Eric McCormack) unfaithful but loving father, George Truman. In addition to earlier appearances on NBC's Just Shoot Me and Mad About You, in 2007 Pollack made guest appearances on the HBO TV series The Sopranos and Entourage.
Pollack received the first annual Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking award from the Austin Film Festival on October 21, 2006. As a producer he helped to guide many films that were successful with both critics and movie audiences, such as The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Michael Clayton, a film in which he also starred opposite George Clooney, and for which he received his sixth Academy Award nomination, in the Best Picture category. He formed a production company called Mirage Enterprises' with the English director Anthony Minghella. The last film they produced together, The Reader, earned them both posthumous Oscar nominations for Best Picture. Besides his many feature film laurels, Pollack was nominated for FIVE Primetime Emmys, earning two -one for directing in 1966, and another for producing, which was given posthumously four months after his death in 2008.
The moving image collection of Sydney Pollack is housed at the Academy Film Archive.
In the 2002 Sight and Sound Directors' Poll, Pollack revealed his top ten films: Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Conformist, The Godfather Part II, Grand Illusion, The Leopard, Once Upon a Time in America, Raging Bull, The Seventh Seal, and Sunset Boulevard.
Pollack was married to Claire Bradley Griswold, a former student of his, from 1958 until his death. His wife died on March 28, 2011 at 74 years of age, due to Parkinson's Disease. They had three children: Steven, Rachel, and Rebecca Pollack. In 1993, Steven died at 34 in the crash of a small, single-engine plane which clipped a power line and burst into flames. Pollack's brother, Bernie, is a costume designer, producer, and actor.
Concerns about Pollack's health surfaced in 2007 when he withdrew from directing HBO's television film Recount, which aired on May 25, 2008. Pollack died the next day at his home in Los Angeles, surrounded by his family who confirmed that cancer was the cause of death, but declined to provide specifics. His body was cremated, and his ashes were scattered along the runway at the Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles.