Robert Burgess Aldrich was born in Cranston, Rhode Island, the son of Lora Lawson and newspaper publisher Edward B. Aldrich. He was a grandson of U.S. Senator Nelson W. Aldrich and a cousin to Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller. He was educated at the Moses Brown School, Providence, Rhode Island, and studied economics at the University of Virginia. In 1941, he left university for a minor job at the RKO Radio Pictures, thus beginning his career as a cinéaste.
He quickly rose in film production as an assistant director, he worked with Jean Renoir, Abraham Polonsky, Joseph Losey and Charlie Chaplin, working with the latter as an assistant on Limelight. He became a television director in the 1950s, directing his first feature film, The Big Leaguer, in 1953. In that time, Aldrich was the rare American example of the auteur film maker, depicting his liberal humanist thematic vision in many genres, in films such as Kiss Me Deadly (1955), today a film noir classic, The Big Knife (1955), a cinematic adaptation of Clifford Odets's play about Hollywood as a business, and Attack (1956), a World War II infantry combat film exploring how U.S. Army careerism determined who attacked and who ordered the attack. During the 1950s, Aldrich directed mostly action stories, including early films like Apache and Vera Cruz, both starred Burt Lancaster. In 1959 he was head of the jury at the 9th Berlin International Film Festival.
In the 1960s he directed several commercially successful films, such as the gothic horror stories What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), featuring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as spiteful sisters and faded child-actresses, the follow up Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, with Bette Davis as a Southern woman who lives in a mansion and thinks she is going insane (both Joan Crawford and Davis were to appear, but Crawford left the movie); the sexually controversial The Killing of Sister George (1968); and the war movie formula template, The Dirty Dozen (1967). The success of The Dirty Dozen allowed him to establish his own film production studio for some time, but several failures forced his professional return to conventionally commercial Hollywood films. Nevertheless, his humanism is thematically evident in The Longest Yard (1974), about the rigged-game politics, and Ulzana's Raid (1972) about the post–Civil War violence against Native Americans.
Actor Lee Marvin ON Director Robert Aldrich
From his marriage to Harriet Foster (1941–1965), Robert Aldrich had four children, all of whom work in the movie business: Adell, William, Alida and Kelly. In 1966, after divorcing his first wife, Harriet, he married fashion model Sybille Siegfried.
Director Robert Aldrich died of kidney failure on December 5, 1983. He is buried at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills.