Many luminaries who brightened American and international stages over the past half-century were lost in the twelve months of 2016.
It proved to be an especially cruel year, taking with it beloved actors like Tammy Grimes, Gene Wilder, John McMartin, Patty Duke, Alan Rickman, Anne Jackson, Brian Bedford, and Florence Henderson; industry leaders like James M. Nederlander, Sr. and Zelda Fichandler; master songwriters like Liz Swados and David Bowie (who had just made his debut as a theatre composer); and one of the greatest playwrights of the past half century, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Albee.
Playbill takes a closer look back at those we lost in 2016, in reverse chronological order.
Debbie Reynolds—one of the last of the great MGM musical stars—died at age 84 on December 28, just a day after the passing of her daughter, actor Carrie Fisher. Appearing opposite Gene Kelly as the talented Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain, Reynolds sang and tapped her way into the hearts of movie audiences around the world. More hit roles followed, including Tammy and the Bachelor—which yielded the hit title song—The Tender Trap, The Catered Affair (later made into a Broadway musical), the film adaptation of The Unsinkable Molly Brown (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award), and The Singing Nun. She made her Broadway debut in the 1973 revival of the 1920s musical Irene, for which she was Tony-nominated.
Carrie Fisher, the storied film actor best known as Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise, died December 27 at age 60. Fisher made her Broadway debut as Debutante in Irene, which opened in 1973 starring her mother, Debbie Reynolds. She also originated the role of Iris in Censored Scenes from King Kong. In 1982, she replaced Amanda Plummer as the title role in Broadway’s Agnes of God. She returned to the Main Stem in 2009 with her solo show, Wishful Drinking, for which she earned a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Solo Performance and won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Solo Performance. She went on to reprise the show as an HBO special in 2010. The TV movie earned a Primetime Emmy nomination in 2011 for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special.
George S. Irving, a Tony winner in 1973 for Best Featured Actor in a Musical in Irene opposite Debbie Reynolds, died December 26. In 1942 he was cast in the chorus at the MUNY in St. Louis, and made his Broadway debut in 1943 in the original cast of Oklahoma!. With 32 Broadway credits, Irving performed in such classics as Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Can-Can, Bells Are Ringing, the 1981 revival of The Pirates of Penzance, and Me and My Girl, for which he earned a Tony nomination. He was last seen on a Broadway stage for the one-night-only benefit performance A Wonderful Life for The Actors’ Fund.
Tony-nominated choreographer Robert Tucker died December 22. Tucker started as a performer on Broadway in Porgy and Bess in 1942. He danced in such iconic shows as Call Me Madam, Of Thee I Sing (revival), and Peter Pan starring Mary Martin, where he also served as the assistant to choreographer Jerome Robbins. Tucker also assisted Robbins and Bob Fosse on Bells Are Ringing and staged the London company production of the show. He also assisted Robbins on Gypsy and the subsequent 1962 movie; and worked with Fosse on Sweet Charity and New Girl in Town. He made his Broadway choreographic debut as co-choreographer of Nöel Coward’s Sweet Potato in 1968. He went on to work on the dance arrangements and choreography of Lorelei, Gypsy with Angela Lansbury in 1974, Shenandoah—for which he earned his Tony nomination—A Musical Jubilee, Angel, The American Dance Machine, My Old Friends, and the 1989 revival of Shenandoah.
Dick Latessa, who won the 2003 Tony Award as Best Featured Actor in a Musical for playing Harvey Fierstein’s onstage husband in the original cast of Hairspray, died December 19 at age 87. Latessa worked with many of the top songwriters of the late 20th century. He created such memorable roles as Will Rogers’ crusty dad in Cy Coleman’s The Will Rogers Follies, Avram Cohen in Charles Strouse’s Rags, the title character in Jones & Schmidt’s Off-Broadway musical Philemon (for which he won an Obie Award), and the original Major-Domo in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies.
Zsa Zsa Gabor, who emigrated to the United States on the eve of World War II with her mother and two sisters—Magda, who acted on radio, and Eva, who became known for her work on TV's Green Acres—died December 18 of heart failure at the age of 99. Married a minimum of eight times (some publications list the total at nine), Gabor became known as much for her glamour and her marriages as she was for her acting career, which began in Vienna after she was named Miss Hungary in 1936. Gabor had one Broadway credit, replacing multiple Tony winner Julie Harris in the role of Ann Stanley in the original comedy Forty Carats, which was directed by Abe Burrows and played the Morosco Theatre December 1968-November 1970.
Fritz Weaver, the sharp-featured, Tony-winning actor best remembered on Broadway for his performance as Victorian sleuth Sherlock Holmes in the 1965 musical Baker Street, died November 26 at age 90. Weaver won the 1970 Tony Award as Best Actor in a Play for his performance as a rigid private-school disciplinarian in the drama Child‘s Play.
Florence Henderson, who starred on Broadway before making her mark on television as the ever-patient mom on the sitcom The Brady Bunch, died November 24 at age 82. In 1952—a year after moving to New York City—Henderson made her Broadway debut speaking a single line of dialogue in the Harold Rome musical Wish You Were Here. She was noticed by composer Richard Rodgers, who cast her as Laurey in City Center revival of Oklahoma! In 1953; she returned to Broadway and Rome for her biggest Broadway part—playing the title role in Fanny, opposite Ezio Pinza and Walter Slezak.
Richard H. “Rick” Steiner, five-time Tony Award-winning Broadway producer died November 3 at age 69. Steiner produced, co-produced or associate-produced a total of 14 Broadway shows in his 30-year career, including an unusual proportion of financial hits and Tony Award winners (and two Pulitzer Prize winners). His roster includes Big River (1985), Into the Woods (1987), The Secret Garden (1991), Smokey Joe's Cafe (1995), The Producers (2001), Topdog/Underdog (2002), Hairspray (2002), Jersey Boys (2005), and August: Osage County (2007).
Natalie Babbitt, whose successful children’s novel, Tuck Everlasting, was the basis for the short-lived 2016 Broadway musical of the same name, died October 31 at age 84. Her book was translated into nearly 30 languages and adapted twice for the silver screen.
Tammy Grimes, star of the Broadway musicals The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and High Spirits, died October 30 at age 82. Grimes appeared in more than a dozen Broadway shows. Married and divorced from actor Christopher Plummer, she had a distinctive voice that lent itself to a variety of accents she sported throughout her career.
Cecilia Hart, a Drama Desk Award winner for her performance in Dirty Linen & New-Found-Land, died October 16 at the age of 68. Hart was married to Oscar- and Tony-winner James Earl Jones until her death.
Dario Fo, the left-wing Italian playwright whose satirical plays poked savage fun at contemporary society—modern capitalism in particular—died October 13 at the age of 90. Fo was awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize for Literature. His 70-plus plays included Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Misterio Buffo and We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay! (also translated as We Can't Pay, We Won't Pay).
Charmian Carr died September 17 at age 73 due to complications from a rare form of dementia. The actor was best known for her performance as Liesl, the eldest of the Von Trapp children, in the beloved movie musical The Sound of Music. Carr was 21 at the time she she was “Sixteen going on Seventeen.” After The Sound of Music, Carr starred opposite Anthony Perkins in the 1966 Stephen Sondheim television musical Evening Primrose.
Edward Albee, the author of dozens of bitingly funny and caustic dramas, and one of the most important American playwrights for much of the last 50 years, died September 16 at age 88. Among his masterworks were A Delicate Balance, Three Tall Women, and Seascape, all of which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama; plus The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and his best-known work, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, both of which won the Tony Award for Best Play.
Jack Hofsiss, who won a Tony and Drama Desk for his direction of The Elephant Man, his Broadway debut, died September 13 at 66. He earned raves for his stylized staging, in which lead actor, Philip Anglim played the physically deformed title character without the aid of make-up or special costuming.
Gene Wilder, who brought an antic, zany energy to a series of Mel Brooks films, and was the screen’s first Willy Wonka, died August 29 at age 83. As co-star of the original The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein, Mr. Wilder was arguably the leading interpreter of Brooks’ gag-a-minute movies during the director’s heyday of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Working on Broadway during the 1960s, he played the Chaplain in a Jerome Robbins 1963 staging of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children; Billy Bibbit in the original Broadway production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest the same year; and improbably portrayed Presidents John Quincy Adams, John Van Buren, and John Tyler in White House in 1964.
Fyvush Finkel, arguably the last significant living link to New York’s once-thriving Yiddish theatre, and an inventive performer preternaturally adept at elongating a career that might have sputtered out decades ago, died August 14 in Manhattan. He was 93. In the 1980s, he found work on Broadway in revivals of Fiddler on the Roof (as Mordcha and understudying Lazar Wolf) and Café Crown (for which he received an Obie Awards and a Drama Desk Award nomination), and Off-Broadway playing flower shop owner Mushnick in the musical Little Shop of Horrors.
Seth Gelblum, who served as legal counsel to producers, writers, directors, composers and others involved in theatrical productions over the past 30 years, died August 8 at age 62. A partner at the law firm of Loeb & Loeb, where he was chair of the firm’s theatre department, he was given a Tony Honor for Excellence in Theatre in 2016.
Norman Twain, a producer who worked on Broadway and Off-Broadway, as well as in California, died August 6 at 85. He started Off-Broadway with Roots by Arnold Wesker. The work of British and European artists would continue to be a hallmark of his producing life. Twain’s most notable critical success was the 1969 Broadway production of Hamlet starring the erratic British actor Nicol Williamson.
Patrice Munsel, a coloratura soprano who often performed at the Metropolitan Opera, and who took on theatre roles around the U.S. later in her career, died August 4 at age 91. While she did perform in A Musical Jubilee on Broadway, her claim to fame was on the Met stage where she sang over 225 times over a 15-year period. Munsel debuted at the Met at the age of 18, after winning a Met contract in the eighth annual Metropolitan Auditions of the Air. Her credits include Lucia di Lammermoor, Romeo and Juliet, Tales Of Hoffman, Rigoletto, Cosi Fan Tutte, and La Perichole. Her best-known role was Adele in Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, which she first performed in 1950.
David Huddleston, a burly character actor adept at playing blustery types in both theatre and on film, died August 2 at age 85. He played Ben Franklin in the 1997 Broadway revival of 1776, Willy Loman’s neighbor Charley in the 1984 Dustin Hoffman Broadway staging of Death of a Salesman, for which he was nominated for a Drama Desk Award, and the title millionaire in the film The Big Lebowski.
James Houghton, who transformed the New York theatre scene and gave birth to a mighty Off-Broadway company, Signature Theater, with the simple notion of dedicating a troupe’s energies to the work of a single playwright, died August 2 at 57.
Zelda Fichandler, who, by co-founding Arena Stage in 1950 in theatre-starved Washington D.C., helped sparked a national movement toward regional theatres, died July 29, at her home in D.C. She was 91.
James M. Nederlander, the longtime patriarch of the Nederlander theatre-owning dynasty, which includes nine Broadway theatres, died July 25 at age 94. Nederlander, known as Jimmy Sr., transformed what was a regional theatre business based in Detroit into a New York powerhouse when, in the 1960s, he set his sights on New York City and began buying Broadway theatres. The Nederlander Organization now has holdings second only to the Shubert Organization.
Marni Nixon, a singer and actress who gained a special kind of fame by dubbing the singing voices of other actresses in famous movie musicals, died July 24 at age 86. The sweet notes coming out of Deborah Kerr’s mouth in The King and I (1956) were Nixon’s. When Natalie Wood warbled “I Feel Pretty” in West Side Story (1961), Nixon sang the words. When Audrey Hepburn spoke, as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (1964), she was pure Hepburn; but when she sang, she was pure Nixon. Nixon’s contributions were not hinted at anywhere in the film’s credits. Nixon appeared on screen in a small role as a nun in The Sound of Music, singing a few lines of “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” She was in the Broadway cast of James Joyce’s The Dead in 2000, stepped into the role of Heidi Schiller in the 2001 revival of Follies, and was a replacement actor for Guido’s Mother in the 2003 revival of Nine.
Radu Beligan, a Romanian actor whose career enjoyed a remarkable longevity, died July 20 in Bucharest at 97 after nearly eight decades of stage activity. He acted in 80 plays, 30 films and many television and radio shows. He acted in plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Neil Simon, and Edward Albee, as well as many native Romanian writers.
Irene Bunis, a wardrobe supervisor who worked behind the scenes on many Broadway shows, including La Cage aux Folles, Legs Diamond, M. Butterfly, Crazy For You, Meet Me in St. Louis, Sunset Boulevard, The Capeman, and Mamma Mia!, died July 21, at the age of 64. She served as the wardrobe supervisor of the Tony Awards from 1995-2015.
John McMartin, the dignified, white-haired character actor equally adept in musicals and plays, died July 6 at age 86. He was a favorite of some of the most famous creators in modern theatre history, including Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince, and Bob Fosse. He created the role of Benjamin Stone in Sondheim’s Follies. He was the last surviving principal cast member from the original Follies, in which he co-starred opposite Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, and Gene Nelson.
Desmond Heeley, who designed sets and costumes for the theatre, opera, and ballet, died June 10 at 85. He made his Broadway debut in 1958, producing the costumes and sets for a production of Twelfth Night, and registered his final Broadway credit more than five decades later, with the costumes for the 2011 revival of The Importance of Being Earnest. His work on the latter won him both a Tony and Drama Desk Award. He won three Tony Awards in total, two for his work on Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—one for costume design and one for scenic design.
Darcie Denkert, a producer who helped translate MGM film properties into Broadway musicals, including Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and Legally Blonde, died June 10 at age 64.
Irving Benson, one of the last surviving performers to have played the vaudeville and burlesque circuits, died May 19 at age 102. For many years he worked with Jack Mann as the comedy duo Benson and Mann. Benson’s comic shtick involved a hangdog expression and a flat way of speaking. He achieved perhaps his greatest fame as a foil to TV funnyman Milton Berle, who hired him to play a planted heckler named Sidney Spritzer. Benson was the subject of a 2010 documentary, The Last First Comic.
Madeleine Sherwood, a character actor who found a home in the work of playwright Tennessee Williams both on Broadway and on screen, died April 23 at age 93. She originated the role of “Sister Woman” Mae in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Doris Roberts, Emmy-winning star of TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond, died April 17 at age 90. Roberts made her Broadway debut in a 1955 revival of The Time of Your Life, under the direction of Sanford Meisner. Among her 11 Broadway credits was the original production of Neil Simon’s The Last of the Red Hot Lovers in 1969, and Terrence McNally’s 1974 double-bill Bad Habits, for which she won the 1974 Outer Critics Circle Award.
Anne Jackson, a theatre actor whose decades-long career was highlighted by frequent onstage teamings with her husband, Eli Wallach, died April 12 at age 90. She was Wallach’s love interest in the U.S. premiere of Ionesco's Rhinoceros in 1961 and they co-starred in the 1960s Murray Schisgal comedy hit Luv. Among their other shared credits were Promenade, All!, The Waltz of the Toreadors, the two-hander Twice Around the Park, a 1989 revival of Cafe Crown, and a 1994 revival of Odets’ The Flowering Peach, her final Broadway credit.
Arnold Wesker, a British playwright who came to prominence in the late 1950s and early ’60s as one of the Royal Court Theatre writers who shook up the staid English theatre scene, died April 12 at age 83. Associated with the “angry young men” movement in English playwriting, Wesker wrote Chips With Everything and the so-called “Wesker Trilogy,” a trio of kitchen-sink plays including Chicken Soup With Barley (1958), Roots (1959), and I’m Talking About Jerusalem (1960). His plays have been translated into up to 20 languages.
Frankie Michaels, who became the youngest actor ever to win a Tony Award when he took home the prize at age 11 for playing Patrick Dennis in the 1966 original production of Mame, died March 30 at age 60. He can be heard on the Mame OBC album singing “We Need a Little Christmas” and “My Best Girl.”
Patty Duke, who rocketed to fame playing Helen Keller in the 1959 Broadway drama The Miracle Worker and then the film version in 1962 (for which she won the 1963 Oscar), died March 29 at age 69. She later won an Emmy for playing Helen’s teacher, Annie Sullivan, in the 1979 made-for-TV Miracle Worker. Her first Emmy nomination came in 1964, she was nominated for an Emmy Award for her sitcom, The Patty Duke Show. Her performance as pill-addicted Hollywood star Neely O’Hara in the 1967 camp classic Valley of the Dolls established Duke’s cult status.
James Noble, a stage actor who gained his widest fame playing the dimwitted governor in the sitcom 1980s Benson, began his career playing politicians onstage, including John Dickinson during the original run of the Broadway musical 1776. He died March 28 at 94.
Ken Howard, the tall, blonde actor who made an impression as the witty, oversexed, violin-playing Thomas Jefferson in the 1969 musical 1776 and a basketball coach in the television series The White Shadow, died March 23, just days before his birthday. He was 71. He won a Tony Award as Best Featured Actor for the play Child’s Play, and starred in Broadway musicals Seesaw and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Shawn Elliott, an actor and singer with numerous credits in theatre, film, and television for nearly 60 years, and who was married to noted musical actress Donna Murphy, passed away on March 11 at his home in New York City. He was 79. He originated roles in Broadway's City of Angels and Marie Christine, and lauded a diverse array of Off-Broadway and regional credits.
Robert Horton, a handsome, strapping actor who donned cowboy hats and boots on stage, television and film, died March 9 at 91. His films included Apache War Smoke and Return of the Texan, and he made television appearances in The Lone Ranger and Wagon Train. He quit Wagon Train to take producer David Merrick’s offer of the lead role of Starbuck in the original Broadway musical 110 in the Shade.
Martha Wright, a Broadway musical theatre actor who followed star Mary Martin into the lead roles of Nellie Forbush in South Pacific and Maria in The Sound of Music on Broadway, died March 1. She was 92.
Robert Dahdah, a frequent director at Caffé Cino, the tiny Greenwich Village theatre considered one of the cradles of the Off-Off-Broadway movement of the 1960s, died February 6 at age 89. Dahdah directed several hits at Caffé Cino, but none as big, or as well-remembered, as Dames at Sea, the Busby Berkeley musical spoof that went on to a longer life at other downtown theatres and launched the career of Bernadette Peters.
George Gaynes (a.k.a. George Jongeyans), an opera and stage performer whose career bloomed late as a character actor, leading to success on the big and small screens, died February 15 at 98. His resonant voice was heard originating Broadway roles including Robert Baker in Wonderful Town and Jupiter in Out of This World. He achieved wider fame in films Tootsie and the Police Academy franchise, and in the TV series Punky Brewster.
Warren Manzi, author of the whodunit phenomenon Perfect Crime, the longest-running straight play in New York theatre, died February 11 at age 60. Perfect Crime has been running Off-Broadway since 1987.
Janet Watson, the choreographer of Broadway’s Big River and the currently running production of The Fantasticks, died February 8 at age 70. Her Off-Broadway credits include Noel and Gertie and the 1984 revival of Pacific Overtures.
Bob Elliott, the surviving member of the long-lived radio, club, and Broadway comedy team of Bob and Ray, died February 2 at age 92. Elliott was the smaller, meeker half of the team, which performed from the 1940s into the late 1980s. Short, balding and milquetoast-ish, he stood in contrast to his bigger, more blustery partner, Ray Goulding, with whom he appeared on Broadway in Bob and Ray: The Two and Only.
Abe Vigoda, the lovably curmudgeonly actor known for his hangdog turns in The Godfather and the sitcoms Barney Miller and Fish, died January 26 at age 94. He made his Broadway debut playing the character Mad Animal in Marat/Sade, and essayed the role of the creepy uncle Jonathan (originated by Boris Karloff) in the 1986 revival of Arsenic and Old Lace.
Ezio Petersen, a longtime member of the circle of New York theatre journalists, died January 25, age unreported. Petersen hosted the program The American Musical Theatre Today for 15 years on New York’s WKCR-FM, 89.9. He worked as a photographer at various times for both The New York Post and United Press International, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Alan Rickman, the tall, urbane, classically trained two-time Tony Award-nominated British actor who, late in life, became internationally famous as Severus Snape of the Harry Potter films, died January 14 at age 69. The star of Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Coward plays on the London stage, he appeared rarely but notably on Broadway in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1987), Private Lives (2002), and Seminar (2011).
Brian Bedford, the British-born, the Tony Award-winning performer was one of the great stage actors of his generation, with a peculiar affinity for the classics and a particular association with Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival. He died January 13 at age 80. He won his Tony in 1971 for The School for Wives. His Broadway and Off-Broadway assignments included The Seven Descents of Myrtle by Tennessee Williams, The Unknown Soldier and His Wife by Peter Ustinov, The Knack by Ann Jellicoe, Jumpers by Tom Stoppard and, in his final Broadway performance, Lady Bracknell in the 2011 revival of The Importance of Being Earnest, which earned him a Tony nomination. In 1997, he was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.
David Margulies, an actor who successfully moved back and forth from stage to TV to film with memorable portraits of harried ethnic characters, died January 11 at age 78. Margulies played Jewish characters in Cafe Crown, Conversations With My Father, 45 Seconds from Broadway, and Brighton Beach Memoirs, and the Greek landlord in a revival of Wonderful Town. However, Margulies is probably best known to the general public for this work on the two Ghostbusters films, playing the mayor of New York.
David Bowie, the pop music chameleon whose ever-shifting musical styles and stage personae kept him an object of fascination, innovation, and inspiration in the music, film, and fashion worlds for several decades, died January 10 at age 69. Previously seen on Broadway in The Elephant Man, his death came just weeks after he made his debut as a stage composer with the Off-Broadway musical Lazarus.
Myra Carter, winner of the 1994 Drama Desk, Obie, Outer Critics Circle and Lucille Lortel Awards for her acclaimed performance in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, passed away January 9 at age 86.
Elizabeth Swados, whose experimental and socially searching pieces of musical theatre were a mainstay of 1970s and ’80s theatre in New York, died January 5 at age 64. She wrote more than a dozen musicals, two of which were presented on Broadway: Runaways and Doonesbury, writing music for three other Main Stem productions. She also wrote novels, non-fiction books, and children’s books.
Robert Stigwood, an Australia-born entertainment impresario who seemed omnipresent in the 1960s and 1970s, died January 4 at age 81. He held stakes in some of the biggest going concerns in music, theatre and film and produced the megahit film version of the Broadway musical Grease. He produced the Broadway premieres of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s early musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, and co-produced Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Stigwood was also behind the stage version of Saturday Night Fever.