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Conservatory Theater Leader William Ball, 60, Found Dead

August 01, 1991|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

William Ball, who breathed life into the concept of an American Conservatory Theater, making his San Francisco-based organization one of the most enduring repertory companies in the country, has been found dead.

The actor, director, teacher and innovator was 60 when his body was found in his Hollywood apartment Tuesday morning.

Steve Carrier, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County coroner's office, said the case was being treated as a possible suicide. "There was an overdose of some kind," Carrier said.

Friends said Wednesday that Ball, known to everyone as "Bill," had been experiencing emotional and financial problems although his agent said he has a substantial role in the upcoming Hulk Hogan film "Suburban Commando" and had appeared on PBS and on some TV series.

His final stage appearance was with Lynn Redgrave in "The Cherry Orchard" last year at the La Jolla Playhouse.

Stormy, cantankerous and single-minded when it came to policy for his beloved theater, Ball antagonized many of his closest friends and supporters who nonetheless continued to give him full credit for the scope of his concepts.

He brought more than 300 productions of both contemporary and traditional drama to distant and diverse cities across the country, earning a Tony award for his company which he proudly accepted in 1979.

As a director he had been nominated for a Tony in 1965 for "Tartuffe." He also had captured the TV Critics Circle Award, New York City's Outer Critics Circle Award and two Obies for off-Broadway productions.

His actors included Annette Bening, Michael Learned, Denzel Washington, Harry Hamlin and Rene Auberjonois.

He was a graduate of the drama school of the Carnegie-Mellon Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh and received a Fulbright scholarship, spending a year studying repertory theater in England.

In 1965 he founded the American Conservatory Theater in Pittsburgh with financial assistance from the Rockefeller Foundation, Carnegie Institute and the Pittsburgh Playhouse Assn.

His company and others being formed across the country were to reshape the face of American theater, offering not only degrees in drama but opportunities to perform experimental and traditional theater in professional surroundings.

Eventually, productions that were first seen in repertory on small stages and with limited budgets, began to appear on Broadway.

Dennis Powers, associate artistic director of ACT, said from San Francisco on Wednesday that Ball and some of his Pittsburgh supporters began to differ.

"They resented his use of outside actors . . . his ideas were national rather than regional."

Ball by then was staging productions ranging from "Six Characters in Search of an Author" to "Hamlet" and he took his group of players on the road in search of a new home.

They were booked into Stanford University for a summer series and came to the attention of Cyril Magnin, the department store magnate and San Francisco cultural leader.

Magnin and his friends lured Ball and his actors to San Francisco in 1967 to begin an association that ran to 1986 when Ball resigned.

Among his honored productions were "Under Milk Wood," "King Lear," "Oedipus Rex," "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," "Caesar and Cleopatra," "The Crucible," "The Cherry Orchard," "Richard III," "Equus" and more.

When he did resign after nearly 20 years of artistic success it was over finances and control. He by then had alienated Magnin and placed himself in charge of fund-raising.

"Subscriptions had dropped from more than 20,000 in the 1970s to 12,000 when he left, "Powers said. "Bill was angry with the press because he felt all they were interested in were the finances of theater and not theater itself. Relationships deteriorated and we were not getting the support we needed.

"Bill was trying to do everything . . . from directing and producing to worrying about ticket sales. It was just too much."

Ball is survived by a brother.

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