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Obituaries

Herbert Ross, 76; Versatile Director, Choreographer

October 10, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Herbert Ross, the versatile director of dozens of popular movies including "The Sunshine Boys," "Funny Lady," "The Goodbye Girl" and "The Turning Point," died Tuesday at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. He was 76.

Ross, who had been in failing health for more than a year and had been hospitalized for several months, died of heart failure, according to his niece, Louise Jaffe.

"Herbert was a great director because he took his knowledge of dance into the movement of acting," actress Shirley MacLaine, who starred in Ross' 1977 dance film "The Turning Point," said Tuesday night on learning of Ross' death. "He mastered flamboyance and sensitivity. He was a [dance] gypsy who at the end understood it all. I will miss him deeply."

Well-seasoned in New York, Ross was already past 40 when he received his first feature film directing credit--for the 1969 musical "Goodbye Mr. Chips" starring Peter O'Toole. Yet he quickly amassed an admirable succession of film credits, including Barbra Streisand's "The Owl and the Pussycat" and "Funny Lady," and playwright Neil Simon's "Sunshine Boys," "The Goodbye Girl," "California Suite," "I Ought to Be in Pictures" and "Max Dugan Returns."

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday October 19, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Ross obituary--An obituary for motion picture director Herbert Ross on Oct. 10 omitted the name of a surviving sister, Selene Spiegel of Louisville, Ky.

"Working with Neil is a party," Ross once told The Times.

Ross also succeeded with such films as the mystery-comedy "The Last of Sheila," and the Woody Allen comedy "Play It Again Sam."

Although Ross disputed the tag, he became known admiringly as a "women's director," for tackling feminine and feminist issues in such films as "Turning Point," a labor of love that reflected his own transition from dancer to choreographer to lauded director and producer on both Broadway and in Hollywood, and "The Goodbye Girl." Both films were nominated for best film of 1977 but lost to "Annie Hall." Ross was nominated for best director, but Woody Allen got the nod that year.

His later films dealing with women included "Steel Magnolias" and "Boys on the Side."

"I spent all those years in ballet, and as [George] Balanchine said, ballet is woman," Ross told The Times in 1995. "I'm used to perceiving women as independent and often more than our equals."

He also credited much of his understanding of human relationships--and his success--to the two "very strong, intelligent" women he married: prima ballerina Nora Kaye from 1959 until her death from cancer in 1987, and then Lee Bouvier Radziwill, sister of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. They divorced earlier this year.

Born in Brooklyn, Ross grew up in Miami, where he got into show business by performing in the Coral Gables Swim Show and--unbeknown to his father who thought he was spending the summer with a relative--touring, at age 15, with an amateur actors' company. He made his stage debut as the third witch in "MacBeth." At the end of that summer, Ross announced he was dropping out of high school and going to New York for a stage career.

Ross worked at odd jobs including nude modeling in an art school and as a stagehand. With no acting jobs in sight, he became enamored with what he called "the magic of dance" during a viewing of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

Exhibiting his lifelong fervor for the project at hand, he enlisted in classical and modern dance classes with five teachers and soon earned jobs as a chorus boy in Broadway musicals, including "Bloomer Girl" and "Something for the Boys."

But while touring in the show "Inside U.S.A.," Ross broke his ankle. "It didn't heal right, and that . . ." he once told The Times, "was the end of my dancing career."

The break occurred in Chicago, and he passed his long recuperation sketching work by Goya at the Art Institute--inadvertently finding a new career. Intrigued with the artist's "Caprichos" series, Ross shaped it into a ballet, which he premiered in 1950 at the Choreographer's Workshop at Hunter College in New York City.

That led to steady work as choreographer of short ballets for the American Ballet Theater, which celebrated its 10th anniversary season by staging his "Caprichos." His pieces included "The Thief Who Loved a Ghost" and "Tristan."

At the same time, Ross began choreographing for Broadway--"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and "House of Flowers"--and television--"The Milton Berle Show," "The Martha Raye Show," Hallmark Hall of Fame productions--and supper club acts of such stars as Imogene Coca and Marlene Dietrich.

After marrying Kaye, they formed the Ballet of Two Worlds company. They toured Europe in 1960, with her as prima ballerina, but disbanded the troupe after a single exhausting year, and returned to New York.

Ross again delved into choreographing a series of new Broadway plays--"I Can Get It for You Wholesale," in which he directed Streisand in her debut showstopper and "Anyone Can Whistle," which earned him a Tony nomination as best choreographer.

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