He Cast His Wife as a Hooker, but Director Ulu Grosbard Says His Rose Is Still Sweet

updated 12/07/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/07/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

The last time Ulu Grosbard directed his wife, Rose Gregorio, she was dead. It happened on the set of True Confessions, the hit film in which Robert De Niro plays an amoral Catholic priest and Robert Duvall is his older brother, a bitter, case-worn cop. Rose, cast as the madam of a cheap bordello who commits suicide by kitchen gas, ends up on a slab in the Los Angeles morgue. It took five takes to get the corpse identification scene right, one effort failing when Rose lurched up and sneezed in Duvall's grieving face. "It's awful to play dead," she says. "You have to relax so your eyes don't twitch and hold your breath, but then you find yourself wanting to swallow." Happily, she made a most convincing cadaver. Of the film itself, New York Times critic Vincent Canby has declared that it is "a reminder of just how good commercial American movies can be when the right people come together."

For Grosbard and Gregorio, who have been married for 16 years, workday collaboration has been rare. Grosbard, 52, is a Belgian-born perfectionist with a reputation for meticulous artistry. He directed such stage works as Frank Gilroy's 1964 play The Subject Was Roses, David Mamet's American Buffalo in 1977 and this year's Woody Allen comedy The Floating Light Bulb. Gregorio, Chicago-born and in her 40s, won a 1977 Tony nomination for her performance as the devoted daughter of a dying woman in Michael Cristofer's The Shadow Box. Both husband and wife are exacting professionals who understand that being selective about scripts sometimes means being short of assignments. "It's a very unpredictable profession," says Ulu. "You have to find a way of continuing to work, but not just for the sake of working. A good deal is luck and some of it is hard work."

True Confessions involved both. Duvall, an old friend, was Grosbard's immediate choice. But he had to wait to sign De Niro, who was still filming Raging Bull—and 50 pounds overweight. Grosbard sensed his wife was right for the female lead, but was reluctant to push her. He asked a dozen other hopefuls to read for the part. He was pleased when the producers declared Rose the best. "Ulu bends over backwards so that people don't accuse him of nepotism," she says.

His respect for the craft has made Grosbard an actor's director. Woody Allen says, "I'd love to work with Ulu again." Duvall has been an admirer since his days as an impoverished actor doing summer stock, when Grosbard gave him advice and, on occasion, loaned him money. "It's hard to find directors who know anything about acting," Duvall says. "With Ulu arguments are nonexistent, because he knows what he's doing." Adds actor Jack Weston, who won his first Tony nomination for his work in Light Bulb: "You don't feel threatened or nervous with him. He's not the sultan or the dictator. He just sits there and guides you along."

"Directing is an odd occupation," Ulu muses. "Wanting to do it came out of my fascination with why people's lives take certain directions. Destiny is an interesting subject. You are here now—but how easily you could have ended up somewhere else." His life is a case in point. Born in the Belgian port of Antwerp in 1929, the son of a Jewish diamond merchant, Ulu was a "lousy student" as a child. In 1943, when he was 14, his parents fled the Nazi occupation and began a tortuous exodus through France into Spain and finally to Cuba by a refugee boat. "I grew up fast," he recalls. "It was a scary time—the anxiety of not knowing how it was going to end. And the stakes were one's life." Ulu cut diamonds in Havana for five years while waiting for a visa to the U.S. He finally got there in 1948, and promptly entered the University of Chicago, where he earned a B.A. and an M.A. in English.

He then went on to Yale Drama School, where he first met Rose Gregorio in 1953. She was the daughter of Italian Catholic immigrants. Her father was a plasterer and her mother a housewife who had no interest in even going to the theater. "But I can't remember a minute when I did not want to be an actress," Rose says. Her childhood was lonely: "We were an Italian family in an all-WASP neighborhood, and no one would speak to us." Saturdays she lingered in movie houses thinking "how easy it would be to act with all that wonderful, sad music." After debuting as Rip Van Winkle's daughter in a high school play, she majored in drama at Northwestern, then headed for Yale. By 1954 she was in Manhattan looking for work.

"Periodically it was suggested that I change my name because it is very ethnic," she says with a laugh, noting that Anne Bancroft was born Annemarie Italiano. She considered rechristening herself "Paula Gregory." "It probably would have been a good idea," she says, "but something in me wouldn't let me do it."

One afternoon Ulu, then in the Army, was on leave in New York seeing a play. On a whim he called his old acquaintance Rose during the intermission and made a date. "We hit it off right away, though we're very different kinds of people," says Rose. "He is more gregarious; I'm a bit of a hermit. He is more subtle; I see things in black and white and broad strokes. I'm much more romantic; he is more sentimental." Ulu still wears his mother's wedding band on his little finger.

During their courtship Ulu found his first job—as a messenger—by knocking on doors listed under "Motion Pictures" in the Yellow Pages. Later his persistence got him into a TV-movie company in Yonkers, and he worked up from gofer to production manager. His first break came in 1961, when he became assistant to director Elia Kazan on Splendor in the Grass. His Broadway directing debut, The Subject Was Roses, was an instant smash.

The following year he married Rose, who had been through Lee Strasberg's Actors' Studio and starred in Ulu's first off-Broadway production, a successful 1962 drama called The Days and Nights of Beebee Fenstermaker. "They were married in front of a crackling fire in my living room by a justice of the peace who looked like he'd been sent from Central Casting," recalls playwright Frank Gilroy. "After the ceremony Rose turned and said, 'My God, the actress has just married the director at the playwright's country home—it's like a movie from the 1930s.' "

Reality was the one-bedroom Greenwich Village apartment they still share. They decided early on not to have a family. "Ours is a difficult profession in which to rear children," Rose explains. "So much of your energies have to go into your work."

When she is not working, she admits, "I'm very unhappy. It's easier for a director to initiate his own project. An actor is at everybody's mercy. In the beginning you take anything that comes along, hoping it will further your career. But once you are recognized you have to become choosy." That may not help the joint bank account, but it leaves them time to prowl antique shops, house-hunt in Connecticut and keep in touch with old friends like Duvall and Gene Hackman. "Rose and Ulu are the kind of people," says producer Manny Azenberg, "who come backstage to hug you whether you do a play that is wonderful or a play that is not so wonderful."

Between the hugs at home, Rose and Ulu fight. "I'm very quick-tempered, he is more of a brooder," Rose explains. "We are both strong, opinionated people. We have real arguments and sometimes we fight dirty, but we don't stay angry long. Many marriages fail," she adds, "because people expect it to be something it can't be. You have to be willing to battle it out and want to make it work."

They have done so partly out of a shared devotion to their profession. "Sometimes I think, 'Wouldn't it be nice to know what you're going to do every day?' " says Ulu wistfully. "To go to a bank job, start as a teller and become the president. This life is so uncharted I have no idea what I will be doing next spring." Currently he's rehearsing Pulitzer-winning playwright Beth Henley's new comedy, The Wake of Jamie Foster, in Hartford, Conn., while Rose is negotiating for a new play. But they both know why they live with the separations and the vagaries. "Everyone who goes into this business wants to be rich and famous," says Rose. "Even though we'd all like to have money, and it's certainly nice to be celebrated, in the end what really counts is doing the work you believe in."

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