Hillard Elkins, Broadway Producer, Dies at 81

Obituaries   Hillard Elkins, Broadway Producer, Dies at 81
 
Hillard Elkins, a producer and talent agent who brought the landmark nude revue Oh! Calcutta! to Broadway, died of a heart attack Nov. 1 at Olympia Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 81.

Oh! Calcutta! was conceived of by British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan as a showcase of civilized eroticism. He drafted writers such as Jules Feiffer, Sam Shepard and John Lennon to write sketches that dealt with everything from wife-swapping to masturbation.

Mr. Elkins became involved because he was at the time the agent of Jacques Levy, who was to direct the show. Kathleen Tynan, Ken's wife, described Mr. Elkins as "a fast-talking show biz dandy from Brooklyn, who gave us his history and proceeded swiftly to explain that he was the one and only man to produce Oh! Calcutta! We were, I recall, totally charmed by this preposterous self-promoter, with his little goatee on the chin of an urgent, intelligent, city-coyote face." The producer even managed to contribute a piece of writing to the production.

Critics loathed the show, but, as Mr. Elkins, a savvy businessman, said, "There is nothing you can say about <i>Oh! Calcutta!</i> that doesn't sell ten tickets."

The show opened on Feb. 26, 1971, and ran at the Eden Theatre for 700 performances. It then moved to the Belasco for 600 more. In 1976, Mr. Elkins, along with Norman Kean and Robert Fishko, revived the show at the Edison Theatre, where it played for 23 more years.

Hillard Elkins, born in New York on Oct. 18, 1929, began his entertainment career at the talent agency William Morris in 1950, working as an office boy. He later formed his own management company and handled the careers of Steve McQueen, Sammy Davis Jr., Robert Culp, Charles Strouse, Lee Adams and James Coburn. He began producing, he said, because "I became bored." His second foray into Broadway producing was the Sammy Davis Jr. musical Golden Boy in 1964, written by his clients Strouse and Adams, and for which he drafted then-retired Clifford Odets. It was a moderate hit.

In the 1970s, following the success of Oh! Calcutta!, the producer set his artistic sights higher, bringing out a couple of Ibsen revivals, A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler, running in repertory. Claire Bloom, his wife at the time, played both Hedda and Nora. (A Doll's House was later made into a 1973 film produced by Mr. Elkins.) He received his only Tony Award nomination for another repertory bill in 1974, the South African plays Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and The Island, which starred John Kani and Winston Ntshona. The producer lost, but the two actors together won Tonys as Best Actor.

Mr. Elkins often operated at the cutting edge. In 1969, he produced the Arthur Penn anti-war film "Alice's Restaurant," which was based on an Arlo Guthrie song. In 1971, he backed the Elaine May comedy "A New Leaf," a dark-hued cult comedy classic which starred Walter Matthau as a playboy who has run through his money, and must now woo, marry and murder an heiress in order to get more. On television, he produced "Pippin: His Life and Times."

Hillard Elkins' interest in theatre began early, when he opened a theatre tent in Queens with his childhood friend Gordon Davidson, who would become founding artistic director of the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. He was what they call a colorful character. As a teenager, he spent time in a reformatory after forging and spending a check for $500. In his office, Mr. Elkins, a short man, hung a picture of Napoleon. He compulsively ate chocolate, and was known for his affairs, pursuing Claire Bloom while she was still married to Rod Steiger, and leaving her a few years later for another woman, who was also the wife of another man.

During the height of his career, in 1972, he was the subject of Christopher Davis' book "The Producer." Bloom described him as having "the cornered look of a huckster waiting to be caught out."

Elkins is survived by his son David; his sixth wife, Sandi Love; another son, Johnny; and a grandchild.

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