Consequently, he became something of a footnote to the movement, unjustly forgotten when critics rhapsodize about the movies of the late 1960s and early '70s.
One could speculate, I guess, that the neglect he experienced had something to do with his age. He was 46 when he made his first film in 1973 - the new-style caper-comedy, "Slither" - while Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were all in their late 20s when they officially advanced the movement with such films as "The Rain People" (1969), "The Sugarland Express" (1974) and "American Graffiti" (1973). Of course, all three would inevitably abandon the cutting-edge of the New Wave for the glories (and financial security) of studio blockbusters.
And I should hasten to note that Zieff wasn't the only middle-ager making movies directed at the youth market. Robert Altman (age 45), Arthur Penn (also 45), Hal Ashby (41) and Paul Mazursky (39) are just three Zieff peers who were no longer ambitious puppies of the movie business when they each hit it big (at the ages given here), making vital films.
It's more likely that Zieff's history was problematic with the influence peddlers. He made his feature debut after an incredibly successful career in advertising, specifically making memorable TV commercials for such products as Alka-Seltzer and Hertz. But it was exactly the elements that he learned from making commercials - a feeling for speed, brevity and short-hand - that make his handful of movies so exhilarating.
Case in point: "Slither," a scattered, free-form lark that plays like a Godard film shot in the most unlikely California locations. (Anyone game for visiting Susanville?) James Caan and Sally Kellerman as Dick Kanipsia and Kitty Kopetzky, reluctant traveling companions, are like a weirdly zoned-out Bogart and Bacall, and they keep bumping into an assortment of eccentric characters, gamely played by Peter Boyle, Louise Lasser, Alex Rocco, Allen Garfield and Richard B. Shull.
It always amazed me that Zieff managed to make a film as shaggy and as studio-unfriendly as "Slither" for James Aubrey during his tumulative reign at MGM.
Zieff made only nine films over a 20 year period and each one is a gem of comic economy. The title that followed "Slither" two years later is, arguably, his smoothest and most refined - "Hearts of the West," which played the 1975 New York Film Festival and became an instant critics' darling. It appealed to obsessed cinéphiles, too. A love letter to early filmmaking, "Hearts of the West" is something of a companion piece to Peter Bogdanovich's "Nickelodeon," which curiously came a year later.
Following "House Calls" (1978), a mature rom-com with Glenda Jackson and Walter Matthau (with a script to which Max Shulman and Julius J. Epstein, no less, contributed), and "The Main Event" (1979) which offered a terrifically appealing reteaming of Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal, Zieff enjoyed his biggest commercial hit in 1980 - the inspired feminist romp, "Private Benjamin," with Goldie Hawn in her most emblematic film performance as a Jewish American Princess who is swayed by disreputable recruiter Harry Dean Stanton (yes!) to join the United States Army.
Hawn is delirious fun as the clueless Judy Benjamin who does her Army maneuvers with limp wrists and no coordination whatsoever and who, with a straight face, asks her drill sergeant (a perfect Eileen Brennan) exactly where are all the beach condos that Stanton promised in his pitch.
A winning film about coming of age - in this case, a rare one about the coming of age of a girl - "My Girl" is a warm but also alert and rather eccentric look at family and friends and the passing of time and ... life. Thanks to Zieff's adroit touch, the film is as comfortable as an all-embracing, overstuffed chair (with an ottoman, natch) - and that's probably the exact kind of place you'd want to sit while watching it.
The movie introduced the remarkable Anna Chlumsky, a little girl with a huge face, as the young heroine, a motherless kid named Vada who lives in a funeral parlor with her father (Dan Aykroyd) and uncle (Richard Mazur) and who finds a fleeting soulmate in Macauley Culkin and a soul sister in the beautician (Jamie Lee Curtis) hired to make the corpses look, well, lifelike. His last film was the unnecessary '94 sequel, "My Girl 2."
The crucial eccentricity (by now a Zieff trademark) of "My Girl" is underlined by Chlumsky's unusual name, Vada, and also by the film's original (and more singular) moniker, "Born Jaundiced," a title which Vada explains in a voiceover. The film's producer Brian Grazer reportedly came up with the banal "My Girl" (with its convenient music tie-in) and I've a hunch that the change was made much to its director's chagrin. I mean, how could Howard Zieff, of all people, not prefer "Born Jaundiced"?
Zieff was 67 when he decided to retire. He died, at age 82, some 15 years later in 2009 - of Parkinson's disease - and his vision is much missed.