Ralph Nelson, Film and TV Director, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Ralph Nelson, an unruly vagrant as a youth who became the innovative and widely celebrated director of such landmark film and television productions as “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” has died, it was learned Tuesday.

Rob Harris, a longtime friend, said the 71-year-old writer, producer and actor died of cancer Monday night at a Santa Monica hospital.

The feisty and venerated Nelson, who honed his professional abilities in television’s glorious and growing days of live performances, when budgets required limited rehearsals and parsimonious salaries, had last directed “Christmas, Lilies of the Fields” in 1979. He had been in failing health for some time, Harris said.


Between “Requiem” and “Christmas” lay a sprawl of credits and countless awards, among them an Emmy (for “Requiem”), an Emmy nomination (“The Man in the Funny Suit”), and an Academy Award nomination (“Lilies of the Field.”)

And the rough-hewn director became as known inside the entertainment industry for his adherence to his principles as his films were outside it.

He once paid his own expenses to travel to New York so he could personally edit for television his 1963 movie “Lilies of the Field,” which won an Academy Award for Sidney Poitier.

In 1971 he removed his “Soldier Blue” from screens in Australia to protest what the censors there had done to it.

Nelson freely admitted that his boiling point had always been several degrees below that of others.

When he was 15 he both won a New York Times oratory contest and was singled out by a judge as “potentially the most dangerous juvenile criminal” in that city for his role in a series of gang fights.

By the time his next birthday arrived he had been jailed in 12 states for vagrancy and suspicion of burglary. He came to Los Angeles aboard a freight train with his fellow hobos and sold programs at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics in order to eat. But soon he was back in jail, charged with attempted robbery.

“At Lincoln Heights Jail they told me 90 days or get out of town,” he said. But Nelson didn’t have any place to go and was wandering the streets when he chanced upon the Union Rescue Mission.

“They fed me, gave me a place to sleep and clean up and found me a job washing dishes at the Lido Hotel (in Hollywood),” he said in 1971 in connection with an interview marking the 80th anniversary of the mission.

Rejuvenated, he returned to New York to finish school, studied acting and went to work on Broadway as a “gofer” for various producers and actors.

Returned to L.A.

When he returned to Los Angeles several years later it was as an actor himself, understudying Leslie Howard as “Hamlet” at the old Biltmore Theatre. He later appeared on stage at the Biltmore with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne’s company, where he met his first wife, Celeste Holm, before going to war as an Army Air Corps flier.

After his discharge as what he described as a “hotshot pilot, flying 2,500 missions over Georgia, Alabama, Florida and other unfriendly territories,” he turned to writing and saw two of his efforts come to the street where he had once brought coffee to Katherine Cornell and Basil Rathbone. One of those Broadway plays, “The Wind Is Ninety” starred Kirk Douglas and Wendell Corey and was credited with launching their film careers.

He turned to directing and for six years told stage actress Peggy Wood how to portray “Mama.” “Mama,” also known as “I Remember Mama,” was early television at its finest, and the discipline Nelson developed in handling a grueling live show made him a natural choice as a director of the now legendary “Playhouse 90.”

Turning Point

His work on one of the best-remembered of that outstanding series, “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” not only brought him an Emmy but also one for author Rod Serling, for actor Jack Palance and for the play itself as “Program of the Year.” It also added a significant dimension to the career of an aging comic, Ed Wynn, who would henceforth be lauded for his dramatic abilities.

Nelson was to direct more than 1,000 dramatic shows for television, but none probably as famous as the poignant tale of a fighter long past his prime. (Nelson also directed the film version, starring Anthony Quinn and featuring brief appearances by Jack Dempsey and Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay.)

He next converted to film a novella turned down by nearly all the major studios and earned an Oscar for Poitier as an itinerant black worker who helps a group of nuns build a chapel.

In a 1979 interview, Nelson recalled that he had obtained financing for “Lilies of the Field” only by agreeing to do it for $250,000 and to complete shooting in 14 days. The film earned millions.

Cost Went Up

By contrast, the TV sequel, “Christmas, Lilies of the Field,” which was to prove his last directing credit, took 19 days and cost $1.6 million.

For the rest of his career, Nelson balanced his motion picture and TV credits. His Rainbow Productions films, in which he often appeared as an actor, included “Father Goose,” “Fate Is the Hunter,” “Charly,” A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich” and “You Can’t Go Home Again.”

Work in the electronic theater included hundreds of “Omnibus,” “G.E. Theatre,” “Dick Powell Theatre” and “Desilu Playhouse” productions, while Nelson’s TV specials ranged from “Cinderella” to the pilot for “Farmer’s Daughter.”

And he profited accordingly, once living in a hillside estate he purchased from Edgar Bergen.

On a clear day, he told Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper in 1964, he could see the street where the police had arrested him many years before.

Nelson’s six children, three grandchildren and a sister, ask that contributions in his name be made to the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills.