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Obituaries

R. Whitehead, 86; Producer of Respected Broadway Plays

June 18, 2002|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert Whitehead, known as Broadway's "Mister Class" for his dapper personage and habit of producing top-quality plays by such classic writers as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill, has died. He was 86.

Whitehead, who received a special Tony award earlier this month for his nearly six decades of contributions to theater, died Saturday of cancer at his home in Pound Ridge, N.Y.

The veteran producer was known for attaining the rare twin peaks of artistic and commercial success on Broadway, London's West End, in his native Canada and occasionally on Los Angeles stages.

Whitehead burst onto Broadway in 1947 with his daring production of Robinson Jeffers' version of "Medea," starring Judith Anderson and John Gielgud. He followed "Medea" with Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," starring Gielgud and Lillian Gish. Despite their classic literary roots, both plays were financially successful, and Whitehead quickly established himself as a man who could make high quality pay.

A Times theater writer once described Whitehead as "one of the most eminent figures in the American theater, a producer whose taste and sensitivity and judgment are respected wherever actors prate upon a stage."

Among the scores of Whitehead productions have been Carson McCullers' "Member of the Wedding" in 1950 starring Julie Harris and Ethel Waters; William Inge's "Bus Stop" in 1955; and "A Man for All Seasons," starring Paul Scofield in 1961. Whitehead produced much of Miller's later Broadway work, including "The Price" in 1968, "The Creation of the World and Other Business" in 1972, the celebrated revival of "Death of a Salesman," starring Dustin Hoffman, in 1984 and "Broken Glass" in 1994.

In a single season--1957--Whitehead had five plays running on Broadway simultaneously--"Separate Tables," "Orpheus Descending," "The Waltz of the Toreadors," "A Hole in the Head" and "Major Barbara."

More recent works included Terrence McNally's "Master Class" starring Whitehead's second wife, Australian actress Zoe Caldwell, as the diva Maria Callas. The production won the Tony as best play of 1996 and was presented at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

Not everything Whitehead touched, however, turned into instant success. He had no luck with musicals, for example, and one particular flop, a 1976 collaboration of Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner called "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" folded after one week.

But perhaps Whitehead's greatest personal disappointment was his effort to create a national repertory theater for the United States akin to Britain's National Theater or France's Comedie Francaise.

In 1960, Whitehead and director Elia Kazan were appointed to head the first Lincoln Center Repertory Theater. They opened in temporary quarters in 1964 with Miller's then-new play "After the Fall," starring Jason Robards, which proved a disappointment in the expectation-charged atmosphere.

Their subsequent productions--O'Neill's "Marco Millions," S.N. Behrman's "But for Whom Charlie," the Jacobean classic "The Changeling" and Miller's "Incident at Vichy"--fared no better. Whitehead and Kazan were ousted in a bitter brouhaha with the theater board.

Whitehead said little publicly about the failure of the project for which he had such high hopes. But he remained convinced that public repertory theater was worth pursuing, and, with that in mind, became an advisor to the Center Theatre Group as the Los Angeles Music Center was being created.

"If they need me, they've got me," he said of his advisory arrangement with the resident company to The Times in 1967. He had tramped through the construction sites as the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson Theater were built, taking particular delight in the 750-seat Mark Taper Forum.

When the small theater opened, Whitehead produced "The Sorrows of Frederick" there and arranged for a subsequent production of the well-received "In the Case of J. Robert Oppenheimer," about the father of the atomic bomb.

During his early involvement with the Music Center, Whitehead discussed with The Times the problems he encountered at Lincoln Center endemic in all public theater--the need to "spend all your time in politics, going up corridors to meetings about money," which, he said, killed the creative process.

Whitehead remained convinced, as he proved repeatedly on Broadway, that artistic theater could be commercially successful, even as he advocated public subsidies for repertory companies.

"The only thing that counts in theater is what happens on that stage when the curtain goes up," he told The Times in 1967. "Nobody is interested in how you did it, just the end result. So all your energies should be concentrated there, not in endless, useless meetings held because of an erroneous initial concept of a self-supporting operation.

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