Director Martin Ritt Throws Moviegoers a Curve by Pinch-Hitting as An Actor in the Slugger's Wife

updated 05/06/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/06/1985 01:00AM

Welling up from secret places in the heart, the look of love is unmistakable. Sally Field's Bambi-brown eyes soften into melted Hershey's Kisses as she describes her mentor, Martin Ritt, 71, the actor-director who nabbed her out of the backseat of Burt Reynolds' Smokey and the Bandit and launched her as a serious, Oscar-winning actress in Norma Rae. Now they're making another movie together called Murphy's Romance. This time Field (who now has a matching Oscar for Places in the Heart) is the star and executive producer. But Ritt's still the boss. "The man has had a tremendous influence on me as a professional and as a human," she says. "The only other people in my life who had that kind of impact are my mother and family."

Ritt is the original gruff grump with the Care Bear heart. He terrified Field when she started Norma Rae. "His first signal that he sends out is, 'Don't be late or I'll bite your head off.' And I was afraid I was going to make a mistake."

But revenge is hers. Now the irascible, exacting Martin Ritt stands revealed on the other side of the camera. After a 10-year hiatus, he popped out of his director's chair and returned to his first love, acting. The director of such classics as Hud, Sounder and The Great White Hope has third billing after Rebecca (Risky Business) de Mornay and Michael (The Great Santini) O'Keefe in Neil Simon's new comedy The Slugger's Wife. Many critics agree that Ritt is the best thing in this piece of cut-rate Simon. He plays baseball manager Burly De Vito, another lovable old codger. "Shrewd casting," Ritt says. "The part suited me perfectly." Though if Ritt were in charge, he says, he would have canned himself and hired Charles Durning.

Ritt admits that he had trouble learning his lines but says, "I like to act.... There's no pressure when you have no reputation as an actor." In fact, he says, "I don't know that I want to direct many more movies. It's very tough work, and I'm not totally well." About 10 years ago he suffered a silent heart attack that was detected in a checkup.

Ritt sounds ready for a second career of cameo performances. But while he watched his latest performance in front of the camera, he was already back working behind one, making Murphy's Romance, the tale of Sally Field's torn affections for ne'er-do-well ex-husband Brian Kerwin and eccentric pharmacist James Garner. When he screened a final cut of The Slugger's Wife, it wasn't in some posh projection room in his Pacific Palisades home or his La Costa condo. He was near his location for Murphy's Romance, a tiny sand particle of an Arizona town called Florence, with his cast and crew who, of course, proclaimed him the best thing in it.

Despite appearances, Ritt did not pop out of a can of Prince Albert tobacco already a grizzled charmer. The son of Jewish immigrants—his father ran an employment agency, his mother cleaned houses—he started acting in college despite parental disapproval. "My father was sure I was destined for skid row," he says. "He never lived to see me a success." Ritt dropped out of law school to be an understudy in Golden Boy on Broadway. After that he acted steadily as a leading man until World War II when he was drafted and served his country directing plays.

By the time he mustered out, Ritt was firmly planted in the director's chair—in part, he says, because "in those days all the leading actors looked like Robert Taylor and Ty Power. I didn't have to be very smart to understand that I could never fit that bill."

In the late '40s Ritt worked with Tennessee Williams, Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller and directed live drama for CBS. But then, in the era of McCarthyism, liberal Ritt found himself blacklisted. CBS did not renew his contract and for half a decade of his prime, from 1951 to '56, he couldn't direct. The FBI told him to name names; Ritt wouldn't. To get by, Ritt's wife, Adele—an actress he'd met at a "high-class Borscht Belt" hotel—sold ad space, and Ritt taught at the Actors Studio, where his pupils included Paul Newman (whom Ritt later cast in four of his movies) and Joanne Woodward. In 1956, as the Cold War thawed, Ritt moved to L.A., leaving the stage because "I was in hock. I'd have signed anything except about my political friends." After two critically acclaimed box office duds, The Long, Hot Summer in 1958 established him as a major director.

Strong social values—compassion for the poor, anger at racism—infuse Ritt's movies, most of them set in the South. What's a mensh from Manhattan doing in the land of cotton? "I've always felt related to rural America," he once said. "The people are tough and funny."

Tough and funny, just like Ritt, just like the women he has Field playing. On the set of Murphy's Romance, she lets her needlepoint drop for a moment and says, "The thing I would have to add about him is that I really love the man!" And the feeling is mutual, Sally. He likes you. He really likes you!

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