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Directed by Martin Ritt
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Martin Ritt Profile

In a 1987 article in The New Republic, critic Stanley Kaufman wrote that Martin Ritt "is one of the most underrated American directors, superbly competent and quietly imaginative." While his films generally revolved around moral themes and he did not develop a particular visual style, Ritt became noted as a superlative craftsman with a particular affinity for actors, stemming no doubt from his own long and distinguished performing career. Indeed, he guided a baker's dozen of performers to Oscar nominations with three (Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas in "Hud" 1963 and Sally Field in "Norma Rae" 1979) taking home the statue. Born and raised in NYC, Ritt had originally considered a career in law until he was persuaded by Elia Kazan to work with the Group Theater. His Broadway debut was in the Group's production of Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy", on which he also served as assistant stage manager and understudy to lead John Garfield. Over the next five years, Ritt worked steadily with them until he was called for military service in the US Army Air Force Special Forces during WWII. Utilizing his theatrical background, he appeared with the landmark stage production "Winged Victory" and made his feature acting debut in the 1944 film version of that play. After his discharge, Ritt made the move to directing with 1946's "Mr. Peebles and Mr. Hooker" at NYC's Music Box Theatre.

Television was in the flourishing of the so-called Golden Age and Ritt segued to small screen work, acting in over 150 live productions and directing about 100 others. His prolific career was curtailed by the government, however, when he was one of the many artists targeted as communists by Senator Joseph McCarthy. When CBS fired Ritt, he moved to teaching at the Actors Studio, where he numbered Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Rod Steiger and Lee Remick among his students. Resuming his directing career with stage work in the mid-50s, Ritt caught the attention of producer David Susskind who hired him to helm the 1957 feature "Edge of the City", a gritty waterfront drama starring Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes that earned high critical praise.

Ritt went on to demonstrate his skill as a meticulous craftsman capable of eliciting fine ensemble performances and of tackling important and controversial social issues in an intelligent--if sometimes heavy-handed--manner. Highlights of his career include the adaptation of various William Faulkner short stories, "The Long Hot Summer" (1958), which marked the first of many collaborations with screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr; "Hud", which helped define the emerging "anti-hero" (Paul Newman) and earned Ritt his sole Oscar nomination as Best Director, and "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" (1965), an adaptation of the John le Carre novel featuring a fine central performance by Richard Burton.

In 1972. Ritt directed the landmark "Sounder", one of the first films to look at the travails of a poor Southern black family in a humanizing way. That same year, he also directed "Pete 'n' Tillie", a middling romance teaming Walter Matthau and Carol Burnett. Ritt was perhaps at his most heavy-handed and on-the-nose with "Conrack" (1974), based on Pat Conroy's autobiographical novel, in which Jon Voight starred as a dedicated white teacher assigned to an island near Beaufort, South Carolina where all the children are black and neglected. The director reteamed with Walter Matthau on "Casey's Shadow" (1978), a light-hearted tale of horse racing before he tackled the biopic "Cross Creek" (1983), which featured Mary Steenburgen as author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Ritt's swan song was "Nuts" (1987), a courtroom drama adapted from a Broadway play that became a vehicle for Barbra Streisand.

Ritt's serio-comic film on the travails of blacklisted writers, "The Front" (1976), drew on his own experiences in the early 1950s. His "Norma Rae" (1979), for which Sally Field won an Oscar as best actress, championed union organizing, and his last film, "Stanley and Iris" (1989) inveighed against illiteracy. He also directed Sally Field a second time in the warm "Murphy's Romance" (1985), which Rich also co-executive produced. Ritt threw in a few acting roles in his later years. He appeared in the German "End of the Game" (1975), and in a substantial supporting role in "The Slugger's Wife" as a Casey Stengel-esque baseball manager. Passionately political to the end, Ritt died of heart disease.

Biographical information supplied by TCMdb


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