Born Herbert David Ross in Brooklyn, New York, he made his stage debut as Third Witch with a touring company of Macbeth in 1942. His Broadway credits as a performer included Something for the Boys (1943), Laffing Room Only (1944), Beggar's Holiday (1946), and Look, Ma, I'm Dancin'! (1948). His choreography career began with the American Ballet Theatre in 1950; the following year he choreographed his first Broadway production, the Arthur Schwartz-Dorothy Fields musical adaptation of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. His first film assignment was Carmen Jones in 1954.
In 1968, Ross worked with Barbra Streisand as choreographer and director of musical numbers for the film Funny Girl. The following year, he made his motion picture directorial debut with a musical version of the classic Goodbye, Mr. Chips, starring Peter O'Toole and Petula Clark.
In 1975, Ross worked on the film adaptation of the Neil Simon play The Sunshine Boys, the first of several Simon play adaptations he directed. Two years later, he helmed the ballet-oriented drama The Turning Point, for which he won the Golden Globe and Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards for Best Director.
He had a huge hit with the film adaptation of Robert Harling's play Steel Magnolias, featuring Sally Field, Dolly Parton and Shirley MacLaine, in 1989. His last film was in 1995, when he produced and directed Boys on the Side, with Whoopi Goldberg, Mary-Louise Parker and Drew Barrymore.