An acute satirist of hallowed American institutions, filmmaker Michael Ritchie found his greatest artistic success in the more creatively adventurous 1970s Hollywood before his comic sensibility was diluted by 1980s and 1990s commercial constraints. Still, Ritchie once said, he only wanted to make "films to be enjoyed."
Born in Wisconsin and raised in Berkeley, Ritchie graduated from Harvard with a degree in history and literature. His direction of Arthur Kopit's play Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad during his senior year led to a job offer to be an associate producer on the Omnibus TV series. Honing his skills on TV throughout the 1960s, Ritchie directed episodes of several series, including Profiles in Courage, Dr. Kildare, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Ritchie brought TV's documentary immediacy to film when rising superstar Robert Redford asked him to direct Downhill Racer (1969). The first film in Redford's "winning trilogy," Downhill Racer skewered Olympic competition in its portrait of golden slope star Redford as an egotistical bastard and earned kudos for the kinetic location-shot skiing sequences. Redford and Ritchie continued the trilogy with their caustic political comedy The Candidate (1972). Scripted by Oscar-winner Jeremy Larner, The Candidate's tale of idealist Redford's seduction by the political machine was rendered all the more real as numerous Redford fans turned out for campaign events staged by Ritchie on location. A rich indictment of mass media politics in the year of Watergate, The Candidate has only become more timely in the ensuing decades. Turning to another brand of American competition, Ritchie next took humorous aim at beauty pageants and all they represent in Smile (1975). Staging a "real" pageant akin to Redford's "real" campaign parade, Ritchie continued to fuse cinema verité techniques with fiction to mine ironic commentary out of a scenario that proved too close for comfort for most audiences. As much about keeping up middle class appearances as about the pageant itself, Smile comically yet pointedly revealed the spiritual emptiness behind the optimistic homilies, pristine surfaces, and relentlessly perky assertions about "helping people" that define the contestants', judges', and by association, suburbia's existence. Though the critics were impressed, Smile flopped.
After his succès d'estime with Smile and The Candidate, Ritchie achieved box office success with The Bad News Bears (1976) and Semi-Tough (1977). A somewhat more heart-warming comedy about trash-talking Little Leaguers and their boozy coach, The Bad News Bears poked fun at America's favorite suburban pastime and spawned two lesser sequels, including the Ritchie-produced The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978). A star vehicle for Burt Reynolds, Semi-Tough was more a slick screwball comedy about football players and their women than a sports movie, but the absurd atmosphere still evinced Ritchie's critical view of the sporting world's media-made commercialism.
Ritchie continued to experience some box office success during the 1980s, but with decreasing artistic returns. Inadvertently setting the tone for the decade, Ritchie was critically blasted for the thriller The Island (1980); he removed his name from the troubled horror spoof Student Bodies (1981) in favor of the infamous Allen Smithee moniker. Ritchie scored a hit with the broad Chevy Chase comedy Fletch (1985) and helmed the sequel Fletch Lives (1989), but the wisecracking silliness had little of Ritchie's 1970s bite. Eddie Murphy's presence was enough to make the ill-conceived The Golden Child (1986) a box office attraction.
Though such subsequent features as Wildcats (1986), The Couch Trip (1987), Diggstown (1992), and Cops and Robbersons (1994) were little more than adequate vehicles for their stars, Ritchie revealed that he still had his satiric touch in the HBO film The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993). As much about the media circus as it was about the titular true-life case, The Positively True Adventures garnered Ritchie a DGA award for direction. Though he worked on a couple of projects in the late '90s, Ritchie's 1995 film adaptation of the long-running musical The Fantasticks became his final release when it opened briefly in 2000. He died from prostate cancer in April 2001, survived by his wife, five children, and two stepchildren.