Sydney Pollack was born to first generation Russian-Jewish Americans on July 1, 1934. After graduating from his Indiana high school, he went to New York and became a student at the Neighborhood Playhouse, a celebrated Greenwich Village school, where he studied under Sanford Meisner. He served two years in the army before returning to the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1958 as a teacher, and began appearing as an actor in live television dramas. His appearance in a John Frankenheimer-directed television production led him to a job as dialogue coach in the filmmaker's 1961 crime drama The Young Savages. He quickly moved into television, directing on programs such as "The Defenders," "The Naked City," "The Fugitive," "Dr. Kildare," and "Ben Casey" during the early and mid 1960s, and in 1965 made his feature film debut in the director's chair with The Slender Thread.
Pollack established himself as a competent, if unexceptional, director in such works as This Property Is Condemned, and one sequence of the Frank Perry-directed drama The Swimmer (based on a work of John Cheever). However, his real breakthrough came in 1969 with the downbeat period drama They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, a brutal Depression-era piece set against the backdrop of a dance marathon contest, starring Jane Fonda and Gig Young. Young won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor while Pollack and Fonda were nominated for Best Director and Best Actress, respectively. (Fonda was said to have lost only because of the controversy surrounding her anti-Vietnam War activities.)