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Paying Our Respects to the Little-Known Director Behind Two Beloved Films Everyone Has Seen

By Dustin Rowles | Celebrity | December 12, 2014 |

By Dustin Rowles | Celebrity | December 12, 2014 |

Without looking it up on IMDB, how many of you can identify the director of one of the most popular, rewatchable films of the 1980s, Dirty Dancing? I couldn’t. I also didn’t know that the same man directed Sister Act. That same director was also behind Chances Are, the 1989 Robert Downey, Jr. romantic comedy.

His name was Emile Ardolino, and despite the fact that he was behind three of the most successful films of that time period, I don’t know much about him. There hasn’t been much written about him, either. His private life is kind of a mystery.

We do know that, with Dirty Dancing and Sister Act, he helped to revive the big-screen musical before Rob Marshall re-revived the musical. In fact, at the time, Dirty Dancing was the most successful independent film to date.

Ardolino was best known for his work in dance. He won an Oscar for the 1984 documentary about the dance instructor Jacques D’Amboise, He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ . That doc also won an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program. He was also nominated for 16 other Emmys, winning one, for directing a collection of programs for the Peabody Award-winning TV series Dance in America, which aired on PBS in the late 1970s and early 80s.

Ardolino wasn’t exactly known for directing heavy, hard-hitting films of substance — he also directed Three Men and a Little Lady, one of the most successful films of 1990, and a Nutcracker movie starring Macaulay Culkin — but for a guy who directed as many successful films in a such short time period, it’s a shame that we don’t know as much about Ardolino as we might should.

There’s probably a reason for that. In 1993, Emile Ardolino died of AIDS. It was the same year that Philadelphia — the first mainstream movie to acknowledge AIDS — was released. It was a time, still, when the memories of those who died of AIDS were often swept under the rug. A Chicago Times review of his Nutcracker, published only four days after Ardolino’s death, didn’t even acknowledge that he’d passed. His obit in the UK wasn’t written until two weeks after he died.

Maybe that’s just the way things were before the Internet. Maybe he simply led a very quiet, private life that no one knew much about. But I thought it’d be fun to write a profile on the guy who directed one of the most beloved films of the 1980s, 27 years after its release. What I didn’t expect to find, however, was that so little is known about him. There are no easily found anecdotes. No crazy stories from the sets. I can’t even find a quote from Robert Downey, Jr. acknowledging his passing.

He left behind a partner, Luis M. Rodriguez-Dilla. I hope his partner is still around. And I hope that someone out there who knew Emile Ardolino knows that, not only have we not forgotten his films, but we haven’t forgotten that he directed them. We haven’t forgotten him. Maybe buried in some notebooks somewhere, or on a floppy drive in the back of someone’s desk drawer, there’s a movie waiting to be made about the guy who directed Dirty Dancing.


RIP Emile Ardolino.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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