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Director Herb Ross Dead at 76

'Footloose,' 'Pennies' collaborator passes on

Director, dancer and choreographer Herbert Ross, who created such musical films as “The Turning Point,” “Footloose” and “Pennies From Heaven,” died Oct. 9 of heart failure at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, where he had been a patient for about three months. He was 76.

In addition to his dance-based pics, Ross directed a number of successful film comedies including Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” and “The Goodbye Girl” as well as “The Secret of My Success” and “Steel Magnolias.”

He began as a dancer in Broadway shows and then choreographed ballets for the American Ballet Theater.

Though he never developed a notable filmic style, he was a natural with actors, coaxing several Oscar-worthy performances.

Of all his films, the youth musical “Footloose” in 1984 was his most financially successful and, in a reverse of the typical progression, inspired a stage version.

His ballets were usually serious and erotic, while his work for Broadway was festive and diverse, including the musical version of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “House of Flowers” and a revival of “Wonderful Town.”

Ross also staged cabaret acts for the likes of Patrice Munsel, Imogene Coca and Marlene Dietrich.

He was born Herbert David Ross in Brooklyn but grew up primarily in Miami. In his teens, he traveled with an amateur theatrical troupe and after moving to New York, worked in a variety of behind-the-scenes job while trying to land acting work.

After seeing several ballets he studied modern dance with Doris Humphrey, and although he admitted he was too tall to be a good dancer, landed in the chorus of such Broadway productions as “Bloomer Girl,” “Beggar’s Holiday,” “Something for the Boys” and “Look Ma I’m Dancin’.”

In the late 1950s, Ross formed his own dance company, Ballet or Two Worlds, with his wife, ABT prima ballerina Nora Kaye. After tackling several musical television productions, Ross staged the dance sequences for Otto Preminger’s film “Carmen Jones” in 1954, but was so unhappy with the final cut he requested his name be struck from the credits.

He disbanded the dance troupe, claiming exhaustion, then staged musical sequences for two British films, “The Young Ones” in 1961 and “Summer Holiday” in 1963.

He returned to Broadway handling the musical staging for “The Gay Life,” “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” “Tovarich,” “Do I Hear a Waltz?” and “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.”

His directorial debut in theater came in 1965 with “Kelly,” a musical that opened and closed on the same night. Back in Hollywood, he took on the musical chores for “Inside Daisy Clover,” “Dr. Dolittle” and “Funny Girl.

In 1969, when Gower Champion bowed out of a musical film version of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” starring Peter O’Toole, Ross stepped in as director and evidenced a facility with actors that saw him through “The Owl and the Pussycat” starring Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen’s “Play It Again, Sam,” “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” and “Funny Lady,” the sequel to “Funny Girl.”

A number of his films, while notable, were financial failures, including his last musical pic, “Dancers” (in 1987); “T.R. Baskin”; “The Last of Sheila” (a mystery written by composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and thesp Anthony Perkins, and which developed a cult following); “Nijinsky” (about the brilliant but tortured dancer); “Max Dugan Returns”; and “I Ought to Be in Pictures.”

Perhaps most notable among these was 1981’s “Pennies From Heaven” starring Steve Martin, an experimental musical based on the British television miniseries, which had many ardent admirers but many detractors as well.

Still, Ross’ batting average in films was fairly high, including “The Sunshine Boys” and “The Goodbye Girl” which brought Oscars to George Burns and Richard Dreyfuss respectively. “The Turning Point” a melodrama set in the world of ballet, garnered 11 Academy Award nominations in 1977, including one for Ross as best director.

After staging Simon’s “Chapter Two” on Broadway, he brought the prolific comedic playwright’s “California Suite” to the screen, for which Maggie Smith copped her second Oscar.

Ross stayed with character comedies and comedy-dramas like “Steel Magnolias” and “The Secret of My Success” for the latter part of his career, though there were a few missteps such as “Protocol,” “True Colors,” “Undercover Blues” and “Boys on the Side.”

In 1993 Ross tackled his first opera “La Boheme” for the Los Angeles Opera.

Kaye died in 1987, and a year later Ross married Lee Radziwill, sister of late former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. They divorced earlier this year.

He is survived by a sister, a niece and a nephew.

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