Herbert Ross

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Herbert Ross, film director and choreographer: born New York 13 May 1927; married 1959 Nora Kaye (died 1987), 1989 Princess Lee Radziwill (née Bouvier; marriage dissolved 1999); died New York 9 October 2001.

Herbert Ross was a former dancer-choreographer who became a director of major Hollywood movies, enjoying particular success with his collaborations with the writer Neil Simon, who called him "a wonderful director". The Simon scripts he directed included the great hit The Goodbye Girl, The Sunshine Boys and California Suite. Other films include Play It Again, Sam, the Barbra Streisand musical Funny Lady, the musical version of Goodbye Mr Chips and the ballet film The Turning Point.

Broadway musicals he choreographed include House of Flowers and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and films for which he staged dances range from Carmen Jones to the best of the Cliff Richard musicals. He won many awards for his achievements in the world of ballet.

The son of a postal clerk, Ross was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1927. When he was nine, his mother died and his father opened a luncheonette or diner in Miami, where Ross made his stage début at the age of 15 in a walk-on role with a touring company of Ballet Theatre. His artistic ambitions fired, he studied ballet with Madame Anderson-Ivantsova, Caird Leslie and Helene Platova, modern dance with Doris Humphrey, acting with Herbert Berghof and painting with Hubert Landau.

While still in his teens, he toured as an actor with a Shakespearean company, then danced on Broadway in the chorus lines of the musicals Follow the Girls (1944), Laughing Room Only (1944), Something for the Boys (1945), Beggar's Holiday (1946), Bloomer Girl (1947), Look Ma, I'm Dancin' (1948) and Inside USA (1948).

His first ballet, Caprichos, was sponsored by the New York Choreographer's Workshop in 1949, and won the Dance Magazine Award – the journal called it "sheer theatre magic". The enormous success of Caprichos prompted American Ballet to hire him as a resident choreographer. Among his other ballet works were The Thief Who Loved a Ghost, Pierrot and the Moon, Ovid Metamorphosis, Angel Head and The Dybbuk.

The first Broadway show he choreographed was the Arthur Schwartz-Dorothy Fields musical A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1951), based on the book by Betty Smith and directed by George Abbott. By 1954 his reputation was such that when the Harold Arlen-Truman Capote musical House of Flowers was in trouble out of town, Ross was brought in to replace George Balanchine as choreographer, also taking over the direction, uncredited.

Later he was to assume direction of another troubled Broadway musical, The Gay Life (1961), an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's The Affairs of Anatol which, though a failure, remains memorable for its gorgeous score (by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz) and the singing of its female star Barbara Cook. The show's brief run is generally attributed to a miscast leading man and a poor libretto. Cook said,

When Herbert Ross took over the direction, he had what I naturally felt was a great idea: he felt that with some rewriting it could be worked out so that I could play all of the women in Anatol's life. The moments I was in were working very well, and Herbert thought we could make it a tour de force, and that might give the show a better run. But there were protests about giving me all that responsibility, and the producers were afraid to try it.

The first film Ross choreographed was Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones (1954), and on stage his dances enlivened such Broadway shows as Take Me Along (1959) and I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1962), the first Broadway musical of Barbra Streisand, who admired Ross's contributions and would work with him frequently.

In 1960 he directed his first Broadway show, a revival of Finian's Rainbow, and formed his own company, Ballet of Two Worlds, which toured Europe. In England his spirited choreography for the Cliff Richard musicals The Young Ones (1962) and Summer Holiday (1963) contributed to their great success.

For an otherwise mediocre Broadway musical, Tovarich (1963), he provided a Charleston-style dance routine for its star Vivien Leigh which stopped the show nightly, and the following year he won a Tony nomination (the first of several) for choreographing Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical Anyone Can Whistle. Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965) and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965) were other major Broadway musicals with dances staged by Ross. In 1966 Ross and his assistant, the late Howard Jeffrey, staged the dances for Natalie Wood in Inside Daisy Clover and the drunken burlesque-style dance of Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The first film directed by Ross was the ambitious but heavily criticised musical version of Goodbye Mr Chips (1969) starring Peter O'Toole, who later stated, "I'm a hoofer manqué, actually, but every time I've been in a musical it's been disastrous." Despite a disappointing score, the film is very touching, and its reputation has improved over the years.

Ross had unquestioned triumphs with two comedies adapted from Broadway hits, The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), a raunchy farce starring Barbra Streisand as a call-girl who becomes involved with an intellectual (George Segal), and Play It Again, Sam (1972), a felicitous and delightful transcription of Woody Allen's play about a Bogart fantasist.

Ross's adept handling of actors in comedy was further demonstrated with his version of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys (1975), with Walter Matthau and George Burns superb as two cranky ex-vaudevillians – Burns was the first of three stars to win an Oscar in a Ross film.

Earlier he had choreographed and directed all the musical numbers for William Wyler's Funny Girl (1968) and in 1976 he directed the sequel Funny Lady, again starring Streisand, but the overblown production was less cohesive or believable than the Wyler film, and the staging of one song as an elaborate flying sequence was criticised as an inferior attempt to duplicate the impact of "Don't Rain on My Parade" in the former film.

Ross then made a film about his first love, ballet, giving Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft virtuoso roles as two lifelong friends who had made different choices between home and career. Entitled The Turning Point (1977), the film won 11 Oscar nominations including Best Director and Best Film (though it holds the record for receiving most nominations and winning none) and was the most successful ballet film since The Red Shoes. Agnes DeMille wrote,

It remained, however, for Herbert Ross in The Turning Point to give us dancing, pure dancing, with all its vitality and strength and beauty and persuasiveness.

Ross had one of his biggest hits with an endearing romantic comedy, The Goodbye Girl (1977), exploiting the warmth and humour of Neil Simon's script and gaining an Oscar-winning performance from Richard Dreyfuss. The following year Maggie Smith won an Oscar for her hilarious performance under Ross in another Neil Simon script, California Suite. Nijinsky (1980), with a fine performance from Alan Bates as Diaghilev, and Pennies from Heaven (1981) were less successful, though the latter, adapted by Dennis Potter from his BBC series, was an audacious attempt to contrast lavish musical numbers of the type seen on cinema screens in the Thirties with the dark underside of the lives to which audiences returned when they emerged from the movie theatre.

Footloose (1984) was popular with teenagers, Dancers (1987) showcased the dazzling talent of the ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov, and The Secret of My Success (1987) was a likeable comedy fashioned for Michael J. Fox, but the biggest hits of Ross's later years were Steel Magnolias (1989), based on the play by Robert Harling set primarily in a beauty parlour, and My Blue Heaven (1990), a likeable comedy starring Steve Martin. In 1993 Ross directed his first opera, La Bohème, for the Los Angeles Music Center Opera Company.

In 1959 he married the celebrated American Ballet Theatre dancer Nora Kaye, who produced several of his films and assisted him on most of his projects, and in 1980 Dance Magazine gave the couple a first-time-ever Award of Distinction

given in recognition of their work as collaborators in cinema; to Miss Kaye as producer, and to Mr Ross, as director, by which they have extended dance into cinema with profound, far-reaching influence on the public and on the American dance theatre.

Kaye died in 1987, and in 1989 Ross married Lee Radziwill, sister of Jacqueline Onassis. They divorced in 1999.

Tom Vallance