Robert Rossen started out as a professional welterweight boxer but turned to writing scripts for stage plays.
He started staging plays for ‘Washington Square Players’ and later on for the ‘Theater Guild’ during the 1920s.
From 1930 to 1935 he worked as an actor, stage manager and finally a director of stage plays.
He wrote and directed his first play ‘The Body Beautiful’ in 1935 which was a comedy about a naïve dancer.
He became a screen writer for Warner Bros under contract in 1936 and worked for Mervyn Le Roy till 1945.
He was a member of the Communist Party in Hollywood from 1937 to 1945 for which he had to appear before the ‘House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) later.
His first screenplay was ‘Marked Woman’ in 1937 starring Bette Davis which was a reflection of the racketeering and prostitution developing in different strata of the society and the requirement for the empowerment of women to fight corruption.
He also wrote a large number of scripts including those for ‘They Won’t Forget’ in 1937, ‘Racket Busters’ in 1938, ‘Dust Be My Destiny’ and ‘The Roaring Twenties’ in 1939, ‘A Child Is Born’ in 1940, ‘Blues in the Night’, ‘The Sea Wolf’ and ‘Out of the Fog in 1941, ‘Edge of Darkness’ in 1943, ‘A Walk in the Sun’ and ‘The Strange Love of Martha Ivers’ in 1946 and ‘Desert Fury’ in 1947. He also produced the movie ‘The Undercover Man’ in 1949.
The screenplay of his debut directional effort ‘Jonny O’clock’ in 1947 was written by him. It was a story about a murder taking place among a group of gamblers. The film was not successful.
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His next film ‘Body and Soul’ (1947) was hugely successful at the box-office. He earned enough money from the film to set up his own company funded by ‘Columbia Pictures’.
With financial support from ‘Columbia Pictures’ he wrote, produced and directed the film ‘All the King’s Men’ in 1949. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Broderick Crawford won the award for Best Actor and Mercedes McCambridge was adjudged as Best Supporting Actress.
In 1951 he directed and produced the film ‘The Brave Bulls’ which was moderately successful.
Though he had a couple of great successful films he became paranoid of collaborating with others especially after the HUAC affair for which he was called to testify against fellow Communist party members. Initially he had refused to co-operate for which he was blacklisted. During his second appearance before the HUAC he provided some names of alleged Communists to the committee and got a reprieve in 1953.
After this incident his career in film direction in Hollywood went into a downward slide. Thereafter he directed the melodrama ‘Mambo’ in 1955 starring Vittorio Gassman, Shelly Winters and Silvana Mangano.
He made the historic epic ‘Alexander the Great’ in 1956 starring Richard Burton and ‘Island in the Sun’ in 1957 which was a story about interracial tensions.
In 1959 he made the film ‘They Came to Cordua’ which had Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth playing the lead roles. It was a failure at the box-office though many thought it should have succeeded. Rossen tried to edit the film and release it many times but failed.
‘The Hustler’ (1961) starring Paul Newman in the lead role helped him return to his earlier form and get back some of the reputation that he had lost due the HUAC fiasco. It was a story of winners and losers in the world of professional pool players which he had experienced in his childhood and teenage days. The film was nominated for nine Oscars finally winning two.
His next film ‘Lilith’ (1964) starring Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg, proved once again that he hadn’t lost his touch and that he was a great director. It was a story about a psychiatric worker who falls ill and is forced to seek help.
The film ‘Roaring Twenties’ was set in the backdrop of the post-World War I period and the start of the ‘Great Depression’ which was a depiction of social and economic injustice.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Susan Siegal in 1936 and had two daughters Carol and Ellen, and a son Steven with her.
Robert Rossen died on February 18, 1966 in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA at the age of 57 only. His sudden death was caused by a series of illnesses from which he could not recover.