Robert Aldrich (1918-1983)

Robert Aldrich
Robert Aldrich

Robert Aldrich is perhaps most famous for his hugely successful film 'The Dirty Dozen' in 1967, and despite his stature among critics, he surprisingly never won a major film award in Hollywood. He made a number of highly successful films during his directorial career and became well known for tackling social and political issues head on. For four years from 1975 he was President of the Directors Guild of America.

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Robert Aldrich was born on August 9, 1918, in Cranston, Rhode Island, into a rich, well-connected family. His father was newspaper publisher Edward Burgess Aldrich and he was one of the grandsons of U.S. Senator Nelson W. Aldrich and a cousin to Nelson Rockefeller, who became Vice President to Gerald Ford in 1974.

After schooling at at the Moses Brown School in Providence, Robert attended the University of Virginia, studying economics. He then elected to follow his interest in movies rather than the conventional political or financial career path envisioned by his family, and in so doing, lost a considerable family inheritance in Chase Bank.

Early film career

Aldrich entered the film industry in 1941, and began working his way through the ranks. His first job was as a production clerk at RKO Pictures. During World War II he worked as a second assistant director for Edward Dmytryk and Leslie Goodwins. By 1944, he was working as first assistant director; among the noted directors to whom he was apprenticed over the next few years were Jean Renoir for 'The Southerner', in 1945; Lewis Milestone, who Aldrich greatly admired; Albert Lewin; William Wellman; Abraham Polonsky, who became a close friend; Joseph Losey, and Sir Charles Chaplin on 'Limelight' in 1952.

Movie Director

Eager to become a director, Aldrich moved to New York, in 1952 where, in that year, he directed several episodes of the NBC TV series 'The Doctor'. His first feature, for MGM, was 'Big Leaguer in 1953, starring Edward G. Robinson, about amateur baseball players striving for a chance in the big leagues. It was low budget and the star was not his normal confident self after coming back to movies from a two year lay off due to his brush with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Nevertheless the movie proved Aldrich's ability to bring in a film ahead of a tight schedule and within budget.

The promising young director formed his own company, to take more control of his career and with his second feature, 'World for Ransom' in 1954, about a kidnapped nuclear scientist for sale to the highest bidder, his characteristic themes and motifs began to emerge: the protagonist is a cynical anti-hero, who acts only according to his personal moral code in an incalculably strange and impenetrable world. The movie was poorly received by the critics, but gained the attention of producers Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster, who offered him his first major production, 'Apache' in 1954.

'Apache' was Aldrich's first box office success and he immediately directed Lancaster again in the SuperScope Western adventure 'Vera Cruz', also in 1954, co-starring Gary Cooper. The critics did not like it but it was another major commercial hit and Aldrich was now one of Hollywood's top young directors.

It was his next feature, the remarkably stylish film noir 'Kiss Me Deadly' in 1955, that revealed both the artistic ambition and audacity of Aldrich, and established his critical reputation. The movie's story, about a thuggish private detective searching for a mysterious black box, is at times absurd, grotesque, and a seeming apocalyptic allegory.

He went on to direct Joan Crawford in the melodrama 'Autumn Leaves' in 1956, for which he won the Best Director award at the Berlin International Film Festival. The film's success enabled him to persuade Crawford to work alongside arch rival Bette Davis in the critically and commercially successful Gothic melodrama 'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?' in 1962.

Subsequent films, including 'Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte' in 1964, 'The Flight of the Phoenix' in 1965, and the World War II action film 'The Dirty Dozen', saw Aldrich at the height of success. Among his best final films are the brutal Western 'Ulzana's Raid' in 1972, 'Emperor of the North Pole' in 1973, and his last commercial success 'The Longest Yard' in 1974.

He teamed up one more time up with Burt Lancaster with 'Twilight's Last Gleaming' in 1977, one of the first post-Vietnam movies to face up to the problems caused by America's involvement.

Aldrich became disillusioned with the movie business when he was deposed as president of the Directors' Guild of America in 1979. He made three more movies --'The Choirboys' in 1977, 'The Frisco Kid' in 1979, and '...All the Marbles' in 1981. None of them fared well at the box office and he retired in 1981.


Aldrich married twice, firstly to Harriet Foster in 1941, with whom he had four children, all of whom worked in the movie business. They divorced in 1965 and the following year he married fashion model Sybille Siegfried, the marriage ending with his death.

Robert Aldrich died in Los Angeles on December 5, 1983 from kidney failure.. He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Los Angeles. He was 65 years old.

Robert Aldrich Academy Awards

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Robert Aldrich Filmography

Big Leaguer
World for Ransom (uncredited)
Vera Cruz
Kiss Me Deadly
The Big Knife
Autumn Leaves
The Garment Jungle (uncredited)
Ten Seconds to Hell
The Angry Hills
The Last Sunset
Sodom and Gomorrah
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
4 for Texas
Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte