Rich grew up in Washington, D.C. His mother, Helen Fisher (née Aaronson), a schoolteacher and artist, was from a Russian Jewish family that originally settled in Brooklyn, New York, but moved to Washington after the stock market crash of 1929. His father, Frank Hart Rich, a businessman, was from a German Jewish family long-settled in Washington. He attended public schools and graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1967.
He attended Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At Harvard, he became the editorial chairman of The Harvard Crimson, the university's daily student newspaper. Rich was an honorary Harvard College scholar and a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and received a Henry Russell Shaw Traveling Fellowship. He graduated in 1971 with an A.B. magna cum laude in American history and literature.
Before joining The New York Times in 1980, Rich was a film and television critic for Time and a film critic for The New York Post, and film critic and senior editor of New Times Magazine. In the early 1970s, he was a founding editor of the Richmond (Va.) Mercury.
Rich served as chief theatre critic of The New York Times from 1980 to 1993, earning the nickname "Butcher of Broadway" for his power over the prospects of Broadway shows. He first won attention from theatre-goers with an essay for The Harvard Crimson about the Broadway musical Follies (1971), by Stephen Sondheim, during its pre-Broadway tryout run in Boston. In his study of the work, Rich was "the first person to predict the legendary status the show eventually would achieve". The article "fascinated" Harold Prince, the musical's co-director, and "absolutely intrigued" Sondheim, who invited the undergraduate to lunch to further discuss his feelings about the production.
In a retrospective article for "The New York Times Magazine", "Exit the Critic," published in 1994, Rich reflected on the controversies during his tenure as drama critic as well as on the playwrights he championed and on the tragedies that decimated the New York theater during the height of the AIDS crisis. A collection of Rich's theatre reviews was published in a book, Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for The New York Times, 1980–1993 (1998). He also wrote The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson, with Lisa Aronson, in 1987.
From 1994 to 2011, Rich was an op-ed columnist for The New York Times; he wrote regularly on the connections between mass media and American politics. His columns, now appearing in New York Magazine, make regular references to a broad range of popular culture — including television, movies, theatre and literature. In addition to his long-time work for the Times and New York, Rich has written for many other publications, including The New York Review of Books.
Rich's writings were criticized by Bill O'Reilly, host of The O'Reilly Factor, a talk show on the Fox News Channel. Rich was critical of Fox News, accusing it in 2004 of having a politically conservative media bias.
Rich also attracted controversy by dismissing the historical-drama film The Passion of the Christ (2004), directed by Mel Gibson, as "nothing so much as a porn movie, replete with slo-mo climaxes and pounding music for the money shots."
In a January 2006 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, a syndicated weekday talk show, commenting on the James Frey memoir scandal, Rich expanded on his usage in his column of the term truthiness to summarize a variety of ills in culture and politics. His book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina (2006), criticized the American media for what he perceived as its support of George W. Bush's administration's propaganda following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and during the run-up to the Iraq war.
A July 2009 column focused on what Rich believes is the bigoted nature of President Barack Obama's detractors. On the Tea Party movement, which emerged in 2009, Rich opined that at one of their rallies they were "kowtowing to secessionists." He wrote that death threats and a brick thrown through a congressman's window were a "small-scale mimicry of "Kristallnacht" (or "night of broken glass", the November 1938 anti-Jewish pogrom in Nazi Germany and Austria). In his essays at New York, Rich has continued to examine the American right, including its latest revival during the candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump.
Since 2008, Rich has been a creative consultant for HBO, where he helps initiate and develop new programming and is an Executive Producer of Veep, the long-running comedy series created by Armando Iannucci and starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. He is also an Executive Producer of Succession, an HBO drama series created by Jesse Armstrong and expected to debut in 2018.
Rich was also an Executive Producer for the HBO documentaries Six by Sondheim (2013), directed by James Lapine, and Becoming Mike Nichols (2016), directed by Douglas McGrath.
Rich's journalistic honors include the George Polk Award for commentary in 2005 and, in 2011, the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism from Harvard University. In 2016, he received the Mirror Award for Best Commentary from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. He was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 2015. Rich was twice a Pulitzer Prize finalist, in 1987 and 2005.
Rich received Emmy Awards in both 2015 and 2016 for Veep, which was named Outstanding Comedy Series. He has won two Peabody Awards, for Veep in 2017, and, in 2013, for Six by Sondheim, which was also honored with the ASCAP Deems Taylor Television Broadcast Award.
In 2011, The New Republic included him along with Rachel Maddow and Ayn Rand as one of the "Most Over-Rated Thinkers" of the year, calling him "an utterly conventional pundit of the old salon liberal variety".
Rich lives in Manhattan with his wife, the author and journalist Alex Witchel, whom he married in 1991. He has two sons from his previous marriage to Gail Winston: Simon Rich, a novelist and short-story writer who created the television series Man Seeking Woman and was a writer for Saturday Night Live, and Nathaniel Rich, who is a novelist, journalist, and essayist.
Frank Rich's memoir Ghost Light (2000) chronicles his childhood in the late 1950s and 1960s in Washington, D.C., with a focus on his lifelong adoration of the theatre and the impact it had on his life.