Ulu Grosbard, Broadway and film director, dies at 83

jack manning/new york times
Ulu Grosbard, on the set of “Who Is Harry Kellerman, and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?,’’ a 1971 film with Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Harris (in photo), was known for being very selective about the projects he accepted.

NEW YORK - Ulu Grosbard, a director whose affinity for naturalistic drama shaped critical successes such as the original Broadway production of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo’’ and the film version of John Gregory Dunne’s novel “True Confessions,’’ has died in New York. He was 83.

His death, at NYU Langone Medical Center, occurred late Sunday or early Monday, his nephew Robert Grosbard said.

Mr. Grosbard’s work was divided evenly between the theater and the movies. Although he had a long career, stretching across nearly half a century, he was highly selective in his projects.


Known for his skill in cajoling substantive performances from actors and his unhurried, perfectionist’s approach to polishing a script and staging a scene, he worked with distinguished playwrights on Broadway, including Arthur Miller (“The Price’’), Beth Henley (“The Wake of Jamey Foster’’), and Woody Allen (“The Floating Light Bulb’’), and cultivated relationships with revered stars, including Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, and Robert Duvall.

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“He was very serious; there was no frivolity about his work, and he never did anything for money,’’ said Emanuel Azenberg, the veteran theater producer who worked with Mr. Grosbard on “The Investigation,’’ a controversial 1966 play by Peter Weiss about the Auschwitz trials that takes all its dialogue from actual testimony but never mentions the words “Jew’’ or “Nazi.’’

“He avoided the pitfalls,’’ Azenberg said.

He was twice nominated for Tony Awards. The first time, in 1965, was for “The Subject Was Roses,’’ Frank D. Gilroy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a soldier returned from the war to his New York home; it starred Martin Sheen as the soldier and, as his parents, Irene Dailey and Jack Albertson, who won a Tony. The second nomination came in 1977 for “American Buffalo,’’ set in a junk shop, about two hustlers and their young amanuensis plotting and botching a robbery. It was one of Mr. Grosbard’s many collaborations with Duvall.

“Actors always ask, ‘What was the director like?’ and they say he was great if he leaves you alone,’’ Duvall said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Ulu was the kind of guy who wanted to see what you brought - and then we’d talk. He was very serious; he had keen perceptions about things. He was a pretty intellectual guy, and I’m OK. But there was a balance there between us. We hit it off right from the start.’’


The two also worked together in a 1965 off-Broadway revival of “A View From the Bridge,’’ Miller’s New York tragedy in which Duvall played Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman undone by his desire for his niece; the production won Obie Awards for both men.

In “True Confessions’’ (1981), Duvall played an embittered and not entirely honest Los Angeles cop who, along with his brother, a priest (De Niro), becomes embroiled in the investigation of a young woman’s murder. The film, whose cast also included Rose Gregorio, Mr. Grosbard’s wife, was “one of the most entertaining, most intelligent, and most thoroughly satisfying commercial American films in a very long time,’’ Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times.

Mr. Grosbard’s other films included the 1968 adaptation of “The Subject Was Roses,’’ which starred Albertson, Sheen, and Patricia Neal; “Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?’’ (1971), a less-than-successful comedy-drama starring Hoffman about a brooding rock composer; “Straight Time’’ (1978), an underappreciated character study of a released convict (Hoffman again) who is unable to stay on the straight and narrow; “Falling in Love’’ (1984), a tale of midlife romance that stared De Niro and Meryl Streep; “Georgia’’ (1995), a story of two sisters with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Winningham; and “The Deep End of the Ocean’’ (1999), with Michelle Pfeiffer and Treat Williams, about the life of a family after the kidnapping of the youngest son.

Mr. Grosbard, who lived for many years in New York, was born in Antwerp, Belgium, where his parents, Morris and Rose, ran a haberdashery and named their second son Israel. (Ulu was a childhood nickname that stuck, given to him by his older brother, Jack.) The family fled the Nazis and waited out the war in Havana, where young Ulu worked as a diamond cutter.

After the family was allowed into the United States, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from the University of Chicago and went on to Yale Drama School before serving in the US Army in the mid-1950s.


His apprentice work as a director was on some high-profile films, assisting Robert Rossen on “The Hustler,’’ Elia Kazan on “Splendor in the Grass,’’ and Arthur Penn on “The Miracle Worker.’’

He earned his first New York stage directing credit in 1962 with an off-Broadway play by William Snyder, “The Days and Nights of Beebee Fenstermaker,’’ about a young woman struggling with a new life in the city, which starred Gregorio, his only immediate survivor, and Duvall.

“He was very cautious about working,’’ Duvall said, adding that he had asked Mr. Grosbard to direct several projects, including the film “Tender Mercies’’ and the television movie “Stalin,’’ and was turned down. “I wanted to work more with him. Whatever he brought to me, I did.’’