On this day in 2001, Herbert Ross, a Broadway choreographer turned movie director whose credits include The Goodbye Girl, The Turning Point, Footloose and Steel Magnolias, dies at the age of 74 in New York City.
Ross was born on May 13, 1927, in Brooklyn, New York. As a young man, he became interested in performing, a choice that came to cause considerable tension within the family. According to his obituary in the New York Times: “Telling his family that he was staying with relatives in New York one summer, Mr. Ross instead joined a theatrical troupe that toured the Deep South. When he came home and told his father that he intended to drop out of high school and join the theater permanently, his father tried to talk him out of it, and they parted bitterly. That very night, his father died of a heart attack.”
In the 1950s, Ross began working as a choreographer, creating ballets as well as Broadway dance numbers. He was instrumental in Barbra Streisand’s early career, according to the Times, “choreographing the famous ‘Miss Marmelstein’ number in the 1962 Broadway musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale, which is widely credited with jump-starting her stage career.” Ross was the choreographer for 1968’s Funny Girl and went on to direct Streisand in 1970’s The Owl and the Pussycat, co-starring George Segal, and 1975’s Funny Lady, the sequel to Funny Girl, which featured James Caan. Ross also choreographed such films as Inside Daisy Clover, with Natalie Wood, and 1967’s Dr. Doolittle.
Ross made his big-screen directorial debut with 1969’s Goodbye Mr. Chips, starring Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark. He went on to direct 1972’s Play It Again, Sam, based on a Woody Allen play and featuring Allen and Diane Keaton. In 1975, Ross collaborated with Neil Simon on The Sunshine Boys, starring George Burns and Walter Matthau as a pair of vaudeville comedians who reunite after a long estrangement. The movie, based on a Simon play of the same name, earned four Academy Award nominations and an Oscar for Burns as Best Actor. Ross also directed Simon’s screenplay for The Goodbye Girl (1977), starring Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason. The movie was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, and Dreyfuss collected an Oscar for Best Actor. Ross and Simon also collaborated on California Suite (1978), which featured an ensemble cast that included Alan Alda, Michael Caine, Bill Cosby, Jane Fonda, Walter Matthau, Elaine May, Richard Pryor and Maggie Smith; I Ought to be in Pictures (1982), featuring Matthau; and Max Dugan Returns (1983), with Mason, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland and Matthew Broderick.
In 1976, Ross helmed Sherlock Holmes-Sigmund Freud mystery The Seven Precent Solution. His next film was 1977’s The Turning Point, a ballet-world drama starring Shirley MacLaine, Anne Bancroft and Mikhail Baryshnikov. The film earned 11 Academy Award nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture. Ross directed Steve Martin in 1981’s Pennies from Heaven and had a big box-office hit with another dance-themed movie, 1984’s Footloose, starring Kevin Bacon as a dance-loving teen in a town where dancing is forbidden. The film launched Bacon’s career. Ross’s next big box-office success was 1989’s Steel Magnolias, which featured an all-star cast including Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah and a then-up-and-coming Julia Roberts, who earned an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actress. The director’s final film was 1995’s Boys on the Side, with Drew Barrymore, Whoopi Goldberg and Mary-Louise Parker.
Ross was married to the dancer Nora Kaye from 1959 until her death in 1987. In 1988, he wed Lee Radziwill, the sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The pair divorced shortly before Ross’ death.