Martin Ritt

Martin Ritt

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.