Gil Hill, former Detroit City Council president, dies

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Gil Hill, a former Detroit City Council president whose role as a frustrated police inspector to Eddie Murphy’s street-smart character in “Beverly Hills Cop” films made him a movie star, has died.

Former Detroit City Council president Gil Hill seen in 2001.

The former longtime city official passed away Monday at DMC Sinai Grace Hospital in Detroit, spokeswoman Bree Glenn said.

A cause of death and other details were not released. He was 84, according to public records. Hill had been in critical condition at the hospital late last month.

“Gil had been recently hospitalized and was on the road to recovery,” family spokesman Chris Jackson said. “We are relieved that his passing was peaceful and painless.”

For decades, long before his big screen appearances, Hill was a civic leader.

“Gil Hill spent more than 40 years serving our city in the Detroit Police Department and as a member of the Detroit City Council,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said. “He never stopped believing in our city, and dedicated his life to making our city a better place for all. Our condolences go out to his family.”

In his 30 years on the Detroit Police Department, Hill held various leadership posts, including head of the homicide division.

“As a rookie deputy I developed a professional relationship with Gil,” said Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, a former Detroit police chief and county sheriff. “Our friendship grew as I continued my career in law enforcement and he was always encouraging and supportive of my development.

Hill was elected to the City Council in 1989 and became its president by securing the largest number of votes in the 1997 election.

He left a lasting impact on the city, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon said.

“We’ve lost a true supporter of the city and its people. I deeply valued Gil’s friendship, guidance, his law enforcement prowess and his affinity for the city he adopted and never left following his military experience,” Napoleon said. “He epitomized public service because there was never a barometer in his eyes as to how people should be treated. He treated everyone the same — with respect and concern. My condolences to his family, loved ones and friends — he will truly be missed.”

Among his achievements during his tenure: drafting an ordinance, the Fare Reduction and Elimination Initiative, which allowed senior citizens to ride city buses free and students to travel at a reduced rate; and creating a task force to help the auto industry deal with a personnel shortage driven by retirements.

In 2000, Hill led a partnership between the council and then-Mayor Dennis Archer to create the Commercial Strip Revitalization Project, which helped link federal funds with community groups to spur business development in neighborhoods.

“There were a lot of issues which we jointly worked on that he championed and thought were invaluable in terms of creating an opportunity for the citizens of the city of Detroit to benefit from,” Archer said. “He worked very hard, at least in my view, to demonstrate his love and affection for our citizens.”

As a councilman, Hill supported casino gambling in the city and helped broker deals for new baseball and football stadiums downtown.

Hill, who in addition to his council duties sat on the board of the city’s Policeman and Fireman Retirement System, also was known for regular visits to neighborhood churches and fielding phone calls from residents.

“He was a person who had a deep commitment to the people of the city,” former council member Sheila Cockrel said. “He had an understanding for the average Detroiter’s experience. He was fair. He was a quiet kind of leader in that he really allowed all of the voices on council to be heard.”

In 2001, shortly before narrowly losing to Kwame Kilpatrick in the mayor’s race, Hill described to The News his personal approach.

“The only thing that’s saved me through the years is the fact that I’ve been grounded,” he said.

In 2003, Hill lost to former Detroit NAACP executive JoAnn Watson in an election to fill an empty seat on the City Council.

“Gil Hill was an honest and good man who cared deeply for the city of Detroit, and spent most of his life working to improve it,” said Agustin Arbulu, director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. “In turn, the city of Detroit loved him.”

A Birmingham, Alabama, native, Hill attended Cardoza High School in Washington, D.C., and in 1953 moved to Detroit, where he later joined the police academy.

Though Hill enjoyed a long career in public service and had a daily radio talk show, his most prominent role may have been the cursing, finger-pointing Detroit police Inspector Douglas Todd, the boss whom Murphy’s character, Axel Foley, in the “Beverly Hills Cop” series was perpetually exasperating.

“He was clearly a very charismatic, interesting and authentic Detroit presence,” Cockrel said Monday. “I think he’ll be remembered for that.”

Despite the fame he gained through the silver-screen appearances, Hill remained humble, said Bishop Charles H. Ellis III of Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, a longtime friend. “To be able to have that role and after that filming to go back to who he was, you would’ve never known he had that prestigious role and access to Hollywood.”

He was married and had three children as well as grandchildren, according to The News’ archives.

A public viewing will be 12-8 p.m. March 10 and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. March 11 at Swanson Funeral Home, 14751 W. McNichols, Detroit. Family hour will be at 11 a.m. March 12, followed by a funeral service at noon at St. Philips Lutheran Church, 2884 E. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Interment will be at Trinity Cemetery in Detroit.

Even after leaving public office, Hill “chose to stay right here in the city of Detroit,” Ellis said. “He was somebody who was a part of the people.”

In 1994, Hill told The News he was cast in the first “Beverly Hills Cop” movie after a location scout team visited him a decade earlier at the police department homicide section. “(Director Martin) Brest just told me, ‘There’s a part in this movie that fits you perfectly,’ ” Hill said. “And I just said, `Sure, pal.’ ”

Former Detroit City Council President Gil Hill from his role in “Beverly Hills Cop”

Hill had the first script reading in his own office then again at the St. Regis Hotel; he learned about gaining the part about two weeks later, The News reported.

In all three films he was in, Hill briefly appears before a special case sends Murphy’s character from his Detroit base to California. Todd, who was killed off early in the third film, often would erupt with expletives due to Foley’s rule-bending investigative methods.

“I’ll be honest with you. If I had received a break like that in my 20s or 30s, I’d have been gone. No question about it, I’d have been gone,” Hill told The News. “Acting certainly has its rewards, and not just monetary. It’s your ego, your esteem. It’s just fabulous. The only thing I’d have worried about is to be sure I had the will to learn the craft.

“Actors work hard. It’s a tremendously difficult profession. But if you become proficient and you have a little star quality about you, then you can live like a king.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.