Martin Ritt

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Martin Ritt
Ritt in 1965
Born(1914-03-02)March 2, 1914
DiedDecember 8, 1990(1990-12-08) (aged 76)
  • Director
  • producer
  • actor
Years active1950–1990
SpouseAdele Ritt (1942–1990; his death)

Martin Ritt (March 2, 1914 – December 8, 1990) was an American director, producer, and actor, active in film, theatre and television. He was known mainly as an auteur of socially-conscious dramas and literary adaptations,[1] described by Stanley Kauffmann as "one of the most underrated American directors, superbly competent and quietly imaginative."[2]

Ritt was an actor-turned-director with the Federal Theater Project and Group Theatre, becoming assistant to Elia Kazan at the Actors Studio. After a promising television directing career was cut short by the Second Red Scare, Ritt made his first film Edge of the City (1957). His 1958 film The Long, Hot Summer, based on the works of William Faulkner, was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the first of three times the director would be nominated for the honor.

His 1963 film Hud earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, and his 1965 John le Carré adaptation The Spy Who Came in from the Cold won the BAFTA Award for Best British Film. Two of his subsequent films, Sounder (1972) and Norma Rae (1979), were both nominated for Best Picture Oscars. Ritt directed many of the biggest stars of his time, including 13 of them to Academy Award wins or nominations - Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas, Patricia Neal, Richard Burton, James Earl Jones, Jane Alexander, Paul Winfield, Cicely Tyson, Geraldine Page, Sally Field, Rip Torn, Alfre Woodard and James Garner.

Four of his films (Edge of the City, Hud, Sounder, Norma Rae) have been selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant.[3]

Early years and influences[edit]

Poster for Power, a Living Newspaper play for the Federal Theatre Project (1937)

Ritt was born to a Jewish family[4][5] in Manhattan, the son of immigrant parents.[1] He graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx.[1]

Ritt originally attended and played football for Elon College in North Carolina. The stark contrasts of the depression-era South, against his New York City upbringing, instilled in him a passion for expressing the struggles of inequality, which is apparent in the films he directed.[citation needed]

Early theatre[edit]

After leaving St. John's University, Ritt found work with a theater group, and began acting in plays. His first performance was as Crown in Porgy and Bess. After his performance drew favorable reviews, Ritt concluded that he could "only be happy in the theater."

Ritt then went to work with the Roosevelt administration's New Deal Works Progress Administration as a playwright for the Federal Theater Project, a federal government-funded theater support program. With work hard to find and the Depression in full effect, many WPA theater performers, directors, and writers became heavily influenced by the radical left and Communism, and Ritt was no exception. Years later, Ritt would state that he had never been a member of the Communist Party, although he considered himself a leftist and found common ground with some Marxist principles.

Group Theatre[edit]

Ritt moved on from the WPA to the Theater of Arts, then to the Group Theatre in New York City. There, he met Elia Kazan, who cast Ritt as an understudy to his play Golden Boy. Ritt continued his association with Kazan for well over a decade, later assisting—and sometimes filling in for—Kazan at The Actors Studio.[6] He eventually became one of the Studio's few non-performing life members.[7]

World War II[edit]

During World War II, Ritt served with the U.S. Army Air Forces and appeared as an actor in the Air Forces' Broadway play and film Winged Victory.

During the Broadway run of the play, Ritt directed a production of Sidney Kingsley's play Yellow Jack, using actors from Winged Victory and rehearsing between midnight and 3 am after Winged Victory performances.

The play had a brief Broadway run and was performed again in Los Angeles when the Winged Victory troupe moved there to make the film version.

Television and the Blacklist[edit]

The May 7, 1948, issue of the Counterattack newsletter

After working as a playwright with the WPA, acting on stage, and directing hundreds of plays, Ritt became a successful television director and producer. He produced and directed episodes of Danger, Somerset Maugham TV Theatre (1950–51), Starlight Theatre (1951), and The Plymouth Playhouse (1953).


In 1952, Ritt was caught up by the Red Scare and investigations of communist influence in Hollywood and the movie industry. Although not directly named by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Ritt was mentioned in an anticommunist newsletter called Counterattack, published by American Business Consultants, a group formed by three former FBI agents.

Counterattack alleged that Ritt had helped Communist Party-affiliated locals of the New York-based Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union stage their annual show. Also cited was a show he had directed for Russian War Relief at Madison Square Garden. His associations with the Group Theater, founded on a Russian model, and the Federal Theater Project (which Congress had stopped funding in 1939 because of what some anti-New Deal congressmen claimed to be a left-wing political tone to some productions), were also known to HUAC. He was finally blacklisted by the television industry when a Syracuse grocer charged him with donating money to Communist China in 1951. He supported himself for five years by teaching at the Actors Studio.[1][8]

Career in Hollywood[edit]

Edge of the City[edit]

Unable to work in the television industry, Ritt returned to the theater for several years. By 1956, the Red Scare had decreased in intensity, and he turned to film directing. His first film as director was Edge of the City (1957), an important film for Ritt and an opportunity to give voice to his experiences. Based on the story of a union dock worker who faces intimidation by a corrupt boss, the film incorporates many themes that were to influence Ritt over the years: corruption, racism, intimidation of the individual by the group, defense of the individual against government oppression, and most notably, the redeeming quality of mercy and the value of shielding others from evil, even at the cost of sacrificing one's own reputation, career, or life.

Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman[edit]

Ritt went on to direct 25 more films. Producer Jerry Wald signed him to direct No Down Payment (1957) with Joanne Woodward. Wald later used Ritt on two adaptations of William Faulkner novels, both with Woodward: The Long, Hot Summer (1958) with Paul Newman, a big hit, and The Sound and the Fury (1959) with Yul Brynner, a flop.

In between, he directed The Black Orchid (1958) at Paramount, and he then did 5 Branded Women (1960) in Europe.

Ritt directed Paris Blues (1961) with Woodward and Newman. He made one more film with Wald, Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man (1962).

Ritt and Newman had a big hit with Hud (1963).

Ritt's 1964 film The Outrage is an American retelling of the Kurosawa film Rashomon, and stars Laurence Harvey, Paul Newman, Claire Bloom, Edward G. Robinson, Howard da Silva, and William Shatner. Like Kurosawa's film, Ritt employs flashbacks in his film.[8][9][10] Paul Newman was fond of this role. He traveled to Mexico and spent time speaking to local residents to study the accents. Newman liked that the film's narrative included different points of view.[8]

Ritt directed The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) with Richard Burton, then one more movie with Newman, Hombre (1967). He ended the '60s with The Brotherhood (1968).


Ritt in 1979.

In the 1970s, Ritt won acclaim for movies such as The Molly Maguires (1970), The Great White Hope (1970) (earning Oscar nominations for James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander), Sounder (1972), Pete 'n' Tillie (1972), and Conrack (1974) (from Pat Conroy's autobiographical novel).

After Warner Bros. Pictures brought the film rights to First Blood in 1973 Ritt was hired to direct from a screenplay by Walter Newman, featuring Paul Newman as John Rambo and Robert Mitchum as Sheriff Will Teasle. However his version of the film was not made.[11]

In 1976, Ritt made one of the first dramatic feature films about the blacklist, The Front, starring Woody Allen. The Front satirizes the use of "fronts", men and women who (either as a personal favor or in exchange for payment) allowed their names to be listed as writers for scripts actually authored by blacklisted writers. The film was based on the experiences of, and written by, one of Ritt's closest friends, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, who was blacklisted for eight years beginning in 1950.

Ritt ended the decade with Casey's Shadow (1978) and Norma Rae (1979) (Oscar for Sally Field as Best Actress).

Final Films[edit]

Ritt made Back Roads (1981) with Sally Field, and Cross Creek (1983), the story of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of The Yearling. It was nominated for (but did not win) four Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress Alfre Woodard and Best Supporting Actor Rip Torn. He directed Murphy's Romance (1985), also starring Field.

In 1987, Ritt again used extensive flashback and nonlinear storytelling techniques in the film Nuts,[12] based on the stage play of the same name, written by Tom Topor.[13] The film was considered a box-office disappointment in relation to its budget, although it did not actually lose money.

Ritt's final film was Stanley & Iris (1990).

Personal life[edit]

Ritt and his wife Adele had a daughter, film producer Martina Wernerand, and a son, Michael.[1]

Ritt died of heart disease at age 76 in Santa Monica, California, on December 8, 1990.[1]


Selected films[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Flint, Peter B. (11 December 1990). "Martin Ritt, Director, Dead at 76; Maker of Socially Conscious Films". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 June 2015.
  2. ^ "Martin Ritt". Retrieved 2024-01-04.
  3. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing | Film Registry | National Film Preservation Board | Programs | Library of Congress". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved 2024-01-04.
  4. ^ Erens, Patricia (August 1988). The Jew in American Cinema. Indiana University Press. p. 392. ISBN 978-0-253-20493-6.
  5. ^ Conesr, John W. (October 8, 2012). Patterns of Bias in Hollywood Movies. Algora Publishing. p. 88. ISBN 9780875869582.
  6. ^ Garfield, David (1980). "Birth of The Actors Studio: 1947-1950". A Player's Place: The Story of The Actors Studio. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. p. 57. ISBN 0-02-542650-8. Whenever Kazan had to miss a class for professional reasons, his associate, Martin Ritt, would take over the session. Ritt was thoroughly familiar with Kazan's procedures and with the special talents and shortcomings of each member of the group.
  7. ^ Garfield, David (1980). "Appendix: Life Members of The Actors Studio as of January 1980". A Player's Place: The Story of The Actors Studio. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. p. 279. ISBN 0-02-542650-8.
  8. ^ a b c Nixon, Rob. "The Outrage". TCM. Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved June 12, 2015.
  9. ^ Miller, Gabriel (2000). The Films of Martin Ritt: Fanfare for the Common Man. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. p. 70. ISBN 9781617034961. Retrieved 2013-02-22.
  10. ^ Weiler, A.H. (8 October 1964). "Movie Review: The Outrage (1964)". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 June 2015.
  11. ^ Broeske, Pat H. (November 25, 1985). "The Curious Evolution of John Rambo: How He Hacked His Way Through the Jungles of Hollywood". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles. p. AB32.
  12. ^ Miller, Gabriel (2000). The Films of Martin Ritt: Fanfare for the Common Man. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. p. 202. ISBN 9781617034961. Retrieved 2013-02-22.
  13. ^ Maslin, Janet (20 November 1987). "Movie Review: Nuts (1987)". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 June 2015.
  14. ^ Baer, William (Spring 2003). "Hud: A Conversation with Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr". Michigan Quarterly Review. XLII (2). hdl:2027/spo.act2080.0042.201.

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