By Robert Simonson
21 Mar 2012
Mr. Grosbard — who also forged an estimable, if spare, career in film — made a significant Broadway debut in 1964 as the director of Frank D. Gilroy's family drama The Subject Was Roses. The play, which ran for two years, won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and Mr. Grosbard was nominated for a Tony.
Following two Broadway flops (including Gilroy's follow-up to Roses, called That Summer — That Fall), the director turned in a success with Arthur Miller's moral standoff between two brothers, The Price, in 1968. Mr. Grosbard had previously shown his affinity with Miller's work with a 1965 Off-Broadway mounting of A View From the Bridge, which won the director a Drama Desk Award and an Obie Award.
He stayed away from Broadway for a decade after The Price, but returned with the most significant stage credit of his career: the Broadway premiere of American Buffalo, David Mamet's searing three-man tale of aspirational frustration at the bottom of the societal food chain. He was again nominated for a Tony, as well as a Drama Desk Award. In 1979, he staged Mamet's The Woods at the Public Theater.
The 1980s brought productions of Woody Allen's The Floating Light Bulb, Beth Henley's The Wake of Jamie Foster, and a revival of Paddy Chayefsky's The Tenth Man. He returned to Henley's work in 2000, directing an Off-Broadway production of Family Week.
Mr. Grosbard's relatively limited output was ascribed to his perfectionism. He was selective in the projects he adopted. Following the success of Roses, he turned down many of the scripts submitted to him, finding them too similar in nature to Gilroy's play. Once he took on a play, he insisted on a polished script and a top-level cast or he would not proceed with a project. He once said he was willing to pay the price of such high standards, which was "not working."
When he first read American Buffalo, he had not heard of David Mamet, but was intrigued because the writer had "a unique vision, intelligence, and an extraordinary ear for translating real behavior." He signed on, but with a demand: Robert Duvall should play the lead role of Teach. Mamet agreed, and Duvall (a frequent collaborator of Mr. Grosbard's) was signed.
The director and the playwright then spent four months honing the script, even though it had already been staged in Chicago and Off-Off-Broadway. Mamet called him "one of three or four people I've ever met who has any idea how to direct a play."
Ulu Grosbard was born Israel Grosbard on Jan. 9, 1929, in Antwerp. (He was called Ulu as a child and legally made it his name when he became a U.S. citizen.) His family fled the Nazis in 1942. He lived six years in Havana, working as a diamond cutter, before emigrating to the U.S., where he was educated at the University of Chicago and then went to the Yale School of Drama. He began directing for the stage in 1957.
He began his film career with an adaptation of The Subject Was Roses in 1968. Thereafter, his track record in movies was as erratic as his stage career. Still, what few films he produced were praised for their subtle touch, textured characters and nuanced performances. He once said he was fascinated by the phenomenon of "human behavior in crisis."
His movies always attracted top acting talent. "Straight Time" (1978) starred Dustin Hoffman as a burglar, just released from jail, who tries but fails to go legit. Though seldom seen, it is considered a lost gem of 1970s cinema. "True Confessions" (1981), based on a novel by John Gregory Dunne, was about the clash between two brothers, one a priest, the other a detective. Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall starred. DeNiro also starred, alongside Meryl Streep, in "Falling in Love," a gentle drama about two married people who are flummoxed by their growing feelings for one another. "Georgia" (1995) was another sibling drama, about a self-destructive singer, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who looks up to her sister, Mare Winningham, a successful country-western star. His final film, in 1999, was "The Deep End of the Ocean."
The director, who sported swept-back hair and prominent glasses, was once described as having a casual manner of dress and the "distracted air of a poet."
Mr. Grosbard is survived by his wife, actress Rose Gregario, whom he married in 1965.