Belgian-born Ulu Grosbard, who drew a Tony nomination for his direction of Frank Gilroy’s “The Subject Was Roses” in 1965 and then launched a feature helming career by directing an acclaimed 1968 adaptation of the play that starred Jack Albertson, Patricia Neal and Martin Sheen, died in Manhattan. He was 83.
Grosbard died late Sunday or early Monday at NYU Langone Medical Center, according to the New York Times.
The film version of “The Subject Was Roses” won an Oscar for Albertson and a nomination for Neal. Grosbard later directed Barbara Harris and Mare Winningham to Oscar-nominated performances as well.
Filmbug.com characterized the director’s work this way: “Ulu Grosbard is known for his complex and daring portrayals of people called upon to resolve the irresolvable, who must deal with life’s contradictions, subtle and grand, in the ambivalence of close relationships.”
Grosbard worked as a diamond cutter in his native Antwerp before the family emigrated first to Cuba during WWII and then to the U.S. in 1948. He earned degrees from the U. of Chicago and studied at the Yale School of Drama before a stint in the U.S. Army.
He directed a 1957 production of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” at the Gateway Playhouse on Long Island and then helmed and produced an Off Broadway production of the play that won him an Obie for best direction in 1965. He first gained notice with a 1962 Off Broadway production of William Snyder’s “The Days and Nights of Beebee Fenstermaker,” whose cast included Robert Duvall and Rose Gregorio, whom he would marry in 1965.
“The Subject Was Roses” was his first Broadway effort, in 1964. The play concerns a soldier returning from WWII who must confront his parents’ turbulent relationship. He returned to Miller’s work with a 1968 production of “The Price” that won the Tony for best play.
In the meantime Grosbard had begun to do feature work as an assistant director. Grosbard was credited on 1961’s “Mad Dog Coll”; he went uncredited on “The Hustler,” “Splendor in the Grass” and “The Miracle Worker” but profited from working with directors Robert Rossen, Elia Kazan and Arthur Penn, respectively. He was also credited as a production manager on Sidney Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker” in 1964.
He followed up his feature helming debut on “The Subject Was Roses” with the 1971 film “Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?,” based on the play by Herb Gardner and starring Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Harris. Harris picked up an Oscar nom.
In 1977 Grosbard directed David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” drawing another Tony nom. He reunited with Mamet in 1979, directing the playwright’s “The Woods” Off Broadway.
He helmed his first film in seven years with 1978’s “Straight Time,” starring Hoffman and Theresa Russell. Hoffman began directing the film before handing it off to Grosbard, who elicited some fine performances.
Next up for the director was 1981 neo-noir “True Confessions,” starring Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall as a priest and a cop who are brothers in 1940s Los Angeles. The film was flawed — Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne adapted his novel, and the complex story didn’t hold up — but there were fine moments from the actors, with De Niro and Duvall drawing best actor nods at the Venice Film Festival.
The same year, Grosbard directed Woody Allen’s “The Floating Light Bulb” on Broadway. The play’s run was brief, but Jack Weston won the Tony for best actor.
In 1982 Grosbard helmed David Blomquist’s “Weekends Like Other People” Off Broadway. The play starred Kenneth McMillan, whom Grosbard directed to an Obie, and Grosbard’s wife Rose Gregorio. Later that year he directed Beth Henley’s “The Wake of Jamey Foster” in a brief run on Broadway.
Grosbard did not impress critics with his next film, “Falling in Love.” Vincent Canby of the New York Times asked: “What are talented people like Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and Ulu Grosbard, their director, doing in a sudsy movie like this?”
In 1989, in Grosbard’s last Broadway effort, he directed a revival of Paddy Chayefsky play “The Tenth Man.”
In his film “Georgia” (1995), about two sisters, one a hugely talented and successful country singer and the other a struggling, bitter punk rocker, Grosbard drew powerhouse performances from both Mare Winningham and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Winningham drew an Oscar nom and won an Indie Spirit award, and both Leigh and Grosbard picked up Indie Spirit noms.
The director’s 1999 film “The Deep End of the Ocean,” starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Treat Williams, was another effectively wrenching family drama, but of a different sort, with the disappearance of a young son at its center. (Gregorio had a supporting role, as she had in earlier Grosbard films “Who Is Harry Kellerman” and “True Confessions.”)
In 2000, he directed Henley’s play “Family Week” (revived in 2010), with Gregorio in a starring role.
Grosbard is survived by Gregorio.