Melvin Bernhardt, Director of Famous Plays, Dies at 84

Obituaries   Melvin Bernhardt, Director of Famous Plays, Dies at 84
 
Melvin Bernhardt, a director who rose to prominence in the '70s as the director of such notable dramas as Da, Crimes of the Heart and The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, died Sept. 12. He was 84.

Mr. Bernhardt did such good work with new plays—often by unknown playwrights who thereafter became famous—that he frequently saw them transfer from Off-Broadway to Broadway and there collect honors. This happened with Beth Henley’s Southern-flavored comedy of romantic manners, Crimes of the Heart, which began at Stage 73, then the home of the fledgling Manhattan Theatre Club.

MTC had been disinclined to mount the play, but changed its mind when Bernhardt showed interest in directing. Crimes moved to Broadway and ran for a year and half. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, earned a Tony nomination and established Henley’s reputation. Mr. Bernhardt also got a Tony nomination.

Da, High Leonard’s play about a young and Irishman and his relationship with his late father, was also nominated for a Best Play and Best Director of a Play Tony Award, in 1978, and won both. Mr. Bernhardt also won a Drama Desk Award for his work. The play ran nearly two years on Broadway.

The plays he made his name with were largely character-focused, and Mr. Bernhardt was known for having a knack with helped actors create and develop their portrayals.

Mr. Bernhardt, who was born in Buffalo, NY, on Feb. 26, 1931, began his career in the theatre as a stage manager. He hit his stride as a director in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when he directed Cop-Out, a short-lived John Guare comedy starring Linda Lavin and Ron Liebman, on Broadway, and Paul Zindel’s tortured memory play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds Off-Broadway. The show, about a strange young girl with a sad home life and rich inner life, starred Sada Thompson and a young Swoosie Kurtz. It won the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play and an Obie and ran for two years. He directed Kurtz again in 1976 in Children by A.R. Gurney, another then-rising playwright. He won an Obie Award for Distinguished Direction, just as he had for Moon.

His other Broadway credits included And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, Hide and Seek and Dancing in the End Zone.

He is survived by his husband, Jeff Woodman.

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