His on-stage debut happened in 1935 with the ‘Federal Theatre Project’ productions, a project sponsored by the ‘Works Progress Administration’ (‘WPA’) in the US during the Great Depression. At the same time he also worked with the ‘Theatre of Action’.
As the Great Depression took its toll, it became harder to find work and several ‘WPA’ theatre personalities including Ritt got drawn towards the radical left and Communism. Though he later stated that he was never a ‘Communist Party’ member, he agreed that he was a leftist in principles and values that matched with some of the Marxist ones.
Recommended by Greek-American director, producer, writer and actor Elia Kazan, Ritt joined Lee Strasberg's famous ‘Group Theatre’ in 1937 and for the next five years performed in several plays of the group including ‘Golden Boy’ (1937) and ‘The Gentle People’ (1939). His tenure with the group had a profound influence in shaping up his social consciousness and political viewpoints, reflections of which were palpable in many of his films.
He served the ‘U.S. Army Air Forces’ at the time of the ‘Second World War’ and performed in the ‘Broadway’ play of the Air Forces titled ‘Winged Victory’ in 1943. The play that was produced as a morale booster and also to raise funds for the ‘Army Emergency Relief Fund’ was a huge success and led to its film version in 1944. Ritt performed in the film version too that was produced by ‘Twentieth Century Fox’.
While ‘Winged Victory’ was running successfully at ‘Broadway’, Ritt simultaneously directed Sidney Kingsley's play ‘Yellow Jack’ where many of the ‘Winged Victory’ actors performed. When ‘Winged Victory’ group moved to Los Angeles for its film version, ‘Yellow Jack’ had a run there too.
After a successful stint in the theatres as a playwright, actor and director, he endeavoured into television and eventually achieved success as a TV director.
While engrossed in directing, acting and producing several teleplays and TV shows, he got entangled in the ‘Red Scare’ in 1952 also referred as ‘McCarthyism’ during the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Even though the ‘House Un-American Activities Committee’ (‘HUAC’) did not name him directly, ‘Counterattack’, an anti-communist newsletter, accused Ritt of aiding locals of the New York-based Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, who were affiliated to ‘Communist Party’, to stage their annual show.
His other associations including that with ‘Group Theater’, which was set up on a Russian model; and with ‘Federal Theater Project’, the left-wing political tone of some of its productions led the Congress stop funding the project in 1939 were also under consideration of the ‘HUAC’. Finally the television industry blacklisted him following charges of a Syracuse grocer accusing him of donating money to Communist China in 1951.
During such blacklisting that lasted around five years, Ritt sustained himself by directing theatre and teaching at the ‘Actors Studio’.
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As the intensity of the ‘Red Scare’ gradually decreased in 1956, he ventured into Hollywood as a director.
He made his debut in film direction with the 1957 drama ‘Edge of the City’ starring John Cassavetes and Sidney Poitier. The film was a much bolder adaptation of the final episode of anthology series ‘Philco Television Playhouse’, ‘A Man Is Ten Feet Tall’ (1955) that also starred Poitier. The racial theme of the film and its depiction of interracial friendship, unusual for its time, although failed to make an impression at box office, received critical acclaim and was highly applauded by representatives of ‘Interfaith Council’, ‘American Jewish Committee’, ‘Urban League' and 'NAACP’ for displaying racial brotherhood.
Moving on he directed another 25 films, many of which are revered till present. His initial projects included films like ‘No Down Payment’ (1957), ‘The Sound and the Fury’ (1959), ‘Paris Blues’ (1961) and ‘Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man’ (1962). The latter earned him Best Director nomination at ‘Golden Globe’ awards.
The 1963 Western film ‘Hud’ that he directed and also co-produced remained one of the landmark films of his career. The film starred Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas and Patricia Neal was not only a commercial and critical success but also received seven ‘Academy Awards’ nominations including one for him as Best Director and finally won three. It fetched him ‘OCIC Award’ at ‘Venice Film Festival’.
He directed the 1965 British Cold War spy film ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’, based on the 1963 novel by John le Carré of same title. The film starred Oskar Werner, Claire Bloom and Richard Burton and was a box office success and also received positive reviews from critics. It bagged several awards including Best Film from ‘BAFTA’.
His another significant movie was the 1979 drama ‘Norma Rae’, based on true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, told in a 1975 book by Henry P. Leifermann titled ‘Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance’. Sally Field who played the title role won an ‘Academy Award’ for Best Actress. The film was chosen to be preserved by the ‘Library of Congress’ in the ‘United States National Film Registry’ in 2011 as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Other remarkable films of Ritt were ‘The Outrage’ (1964), ‘Hombre’ (1967), ‘The Molly Maguires’ (1970), ‘Sounder’ (1972), ‘Cross Creek’ (1983), ‘Murphy's Romance’ (1985), ‘Nuts’ (1987) and ‘Stanley & Iris’ (1990).