Robert Rossen Biography
* Rossen is pictured on the left alongside Broderick Crawford from ALL THE KING'S MEN
He was born in New York City on March 16th, 1908, into a poor Russian-Jewish family on the Lower East Side. Early in his career he was a professional boxer (like Garfield's character in Body and Soul) but gave it up to become a writer. Like many writers and artists in New York in the 1930s, he joined the Communist Party because, as he told his son, it was "dedicated to social causes of the sort that we as poor Jews from New York were interested in." As it would for so many others, it was a decision that would come back to haunt him twenty years later.
Rossen focused on writing and directing off-Broadway plays, one of which The Body Beautiful ran for only four performances in 1936 but it got him the attention of Warner Brothers and they signed him to a writer's contract. His first credit was for the Bette Davis' crime drama Marked Woman (1937). For the next ten years he contributed to the screenplays of Fools for Scandal (1938), Dust Be My Destiny (1939), The Roaring Twenties (1939), Blues in the Night (1941), A Walk in the Sun (1945), and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).
In 1947, now at Columbia Pictures, he directed his first film, a murder story starring Dick Powell called Johnny O'Clock which he also wrote, based on Milton Holmes' original story. The success of the film changed the course of his career and Rossen would now work as a writer/director. He followed up Johnny O'Clock with a film very near to his heart, Body and Soul starring fellow New Yorker John Garfield as a boxer who is taken under the wing of an unethical promoter. It was a world Rossen knew well, having lived it first-hand as a young man.
In 1949 he adapted Robert Penn Warren's novel All the King's Men. Another story of a man who comes up from nothing to prominence and how that success eventually corrupts him, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Actor (for Broderick Crawford) and Best Actress (for Mercedes McCambridge). Rossen was now at the top of his game. One year later it all fell apart.
The House Un-American Activities Committee, led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, was trying to root out Communists and suspected Communists from all walks of American life. Hollywood was particularly singled out. Rossen's past caught up with him and on January 25th 1951 he was called before the HUAC. He refused to name names and was blacklisted.
Robert Rossen, who had just won an Academy Award for Best Picture, could not find work. None of the studios would risk the displeasure of the HUAC (and by extension, the FBI) by hiring anyone out of favor. He found not working to be intolerable. After two years, he cut a deal and reappeared in front of the committee on May 7, 1953. This time, he named fifty-seven people who were members of the Communist party. His son Stephen later explained his father's reasoning, "It killed him not to work. He was torn between his desire to work and his desire not to talk, and he didn't know what to do. What I think he wanted to know was, what would I think of him if he talked? He didn't say it in that way, though. Then he explained to me the politics of it - how the studios were in on it, and there was never any chance of his working. He was under pressure, he was sick, his diabetes was bad, and he was drinking. By this time I understood that he had refused to talk before and had done his time, from my point of view. What could any kid say at that point? You say, "I love you and I'm behind you." Rossen stated to the committee "I don't think after two years of thinking, that any one individual can ever indulge himself in the luxury of individual morality or pit it against what I feel today very strongly is the security and safety of this nation."
After his appearance, the studios lifted their blacklist and Rossen was allowed to work again. During the 1950's he directed films such as Island in the Sun (1957) and They Came to Cordura (1959). His last great film was The Hustler. Again, the story of a pool player who was hits rock bottom and links up with an unethical manager to get the chance to be a champion mirrored Rossen's own experience with the HUAC. It won two Academy Awards for Best Art Direction and Cinematography (black and white), and was nominated for Best Actor (Paul Newman), two Best Supporting Actor nominations for Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott, Best Actress for Piper Laurie, Best Writing, Best Picture, and for Rossen, Best Director.
By now his diabetes and his alcoholism were taking a toll on his health. Rossen would direct only one other film, Lilith (1964), before his death in Hollywood, on February 18, 1966.
by Lorraine LoBianco
The Internet Movie Database