Like two of his legendary contemporaries from the same generation, Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet, the gifted American filmmaker Stuart Rosenberg cut his chops exhaustively in television in the late '50s and early to mid-'60s, prior to embarking on big-screen assignments. The parallels end, however, when one realizes that the individual titles filmed by Rosenberg far superseded his own recognition as an "above the marquee name." Such pictures as Cool Hand Luke, Brubaker, and The Pope of Greenwich Village are icons of Americana, but few casual admirers of those films could associate the pictures with a single directorial tag (unlike, say, Out of Africa or Dog Day Afternoon). Such is merely a reflection on Rosenberg's aptitude as a competent and efficient cinematic craftsperson and his ability to lose himself in individual assignments -- an approach that typically met with great critical success. At the same time, however, Rosenberg turned out a handful of embarrassing turkeys (such as WUSA , The Amityville Horror , and Love and Bullets ), films far, far beneath his talents, that -- despite meeting everything from financial calamity to number-one box office triumph -- probably would have been far better for Rosenberg's long-term image if buried by the studios and forgotten.
Born in Brooklyn, NY, on August 11, 1927 (some sources alternately list his birthrate as 1925), Rosenberg attended New York University as a young man, where he studied Irish literature. Attempting (with some struggle) to support himself as a graduate student and teacher, Rosenberg opted, as an alternative, to train as an editor on television programs. At that time (early to mid-'50s), the Big Apple thrived as the central mecca and hotbed of broadcast activity -- one of the nation's foremost creative labs for exciting new talent. In other words, Rosenberg fell into the perfect niche.
By 1957, the then 30-year-old Rosenberg graduated from editor to director, and gained a deserved reputation for helming episodes of hit crime, mystery, and suspense series on the glitter box, such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and The Untouchables; his resumé lists close to 50 such episodes. Rosenberg officially graduated to features in 1960 with the well-received crime drama Murder, Inc. (starring Stuart Whitman and co-directed with Burt Balaban) and followed it up with the religious drama Question 7 in 1961. Rosenberg's next directorial assignment (and his first huge break) didn't arrive until over five years later; while browsing in a Hollywood Boulevard bookstore, he happened upon Donn Pearce's 1965 novel Cool Hand Luke, about a man thrown into a hellish Southern chain gang for destroying city parking meters. Entranced, Rosenberg took the novel to Jack Lemmon at his production company, Jalem, and -- with Paul Newman in the lead -- the result was not only one of the highest grossers of 1967, but a multiple Oscar nominee and an American classic. In addition to the fine performances by Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, and many others, Luke added to the U.S. pop-culture lexicon such stock quotes as "What we've got here is a failure to communicate," "Any man don't keep order spends a night in the box," and (a hands-down favorite) "No man can eat 50 eggs." By underscoring the characters and the humor via his directorial approach, Rosenberg and scripters Frank Pierson and Donn Pearce transformed the material from a relentlessly unpleasant tirade into an engaging anti-authoritarian anthem, released (impeccably) during the year of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate.
Unfortunately, Rosenberg's subsequent efforts, during the early '70s, failed to meet the critical or public kudos of Luke, yet consistently revealed genuine depth and talent. The director teamed up with Newman three more times, first on WUSA (1970), the tale of a drifter who becomes the pawn of an über-right-wing radio station; then on Pocket Money (1972), a loosely-knit and genial comedy Western, scripted by Terrence Malick, with Newman and Lee Marvin as a couple of roving cowboys; and finally The Drowning Pool (1975), Newman's sequel to the 1966 detective mystery Harper. Rosenberg also helmed the 1973 Laughing Policeman -- a gruesome, nocturnal mystery thriller starring Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern. The latter three were impressive, enjoyable, and finely wrought efforts and drew loyal cult followings, but all of these pictures disappointed in terms of box-office draw, and by the late '70s, Rosenberg was considered by some to be passé and something of a one-hit wonder -- until he signed on to direct The Amityville Horror. Though deservedly trashed by critics, this paper-thin, effects-laden tale of the Lutzes, who move into a haunted house on Long Island, became one of the most lucrative grossers of its year.
Rosenberg's activity died down during the '80s and '90s, despite two spectacular comebacks: first, he agreed to helm the Robert Redford "Southern prison" picture Brubaker (1980) when Bob Rafelson withdrew from that assignment; Pauline Kael observed, glowingly, "This muckraking melodrama has considerable power and some strong performances....There are individual sequences that may be the best work Rosenberg has ever done on the screen." Then, four years later, Rosenberg directed the ethnic drama The Pope of Greenwich Village, starring Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts as Italian and Irish hoods in New York; it became one of the most popular films of its year. Rosenberg directed his last major picture with the 1991 My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, then essentially retired from behind-the-camera work, teaching directing classes at the AFI in his off time. Rosenberg died of a heart attack at age 79 on March 15, 2007, at his home in Beverly Hills, CA.