Robert Whitehead, Distinguished Producer of Plays, Dead at 86

Obituaries   Robert Whitehead, Distinguished Producer of Plays, Dead at 86 Robert Whitehead, who, over a 50-year career produced landmark productions of everything from Arthur Miller to Euripides to Terrence McNally, and who received a 2002 Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre just two weeks ago, died June 15 at his home in Pound Ridge, NY. He was 86 and had been ailing for some time.
Kate Reid, Albert Salmi, David Burns and Shepperd Strudwick in The Price Zoe Caldwell in Master Class.
Kate Reid, Albert Salmi, David Burns and Shepperd Strudwick in The Price
Zoe Caldwell in Master Class. (Photo by <i>Master Class</i> photo by Joan Marcus)

Robert Whitehead, who, over a 50-year career produced landmark productions of everything from Arthur Miller to Euripides to Terrence McNally, and who received a 2002 Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre just two weeks ago, died June 15 at his home in Pound Ridge, NY. He was 86 and had been ailing for some time.

Whitehead's like has disappeared from the Broadway producing circles of today. He had more than 70 credits to his name and focused almost exclusively on plays. His name is inextricably linked with serious, high minded fare. Often his projects hosted commanding acting turns by the likes of Paul Scofield, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Julie Harris, Ethel Waters, Kim Stanley, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Jason Robards, Elizabeth Ashley, Blythe Danner and Raul Julia.

At the peak of his activity, Whitehead produced three to four plays a season, usually with his longtime partner Roger L. Stevens. Together they formed The Producers Theatre. From 1960 to 1964, he was co-artistic director with Elia Kazan of the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center. His productions there included After the Fall, Tartuffe and The Changling.

When Whitehead formed alliances with playwrights, directors and other artists, the bond often had a longer life—lasting decades rather than years—than is often the case in the theatre. Among the producer's most lasting and rewarding relationships was that with Arthur Miller. Whitehead produced many of the playwrights' mid-careers efforts, including the original stagings of The Price, After the Fall, Incident at Vichy, A Memory of Two Mondays/A View from the Bridge and The Creation of the World and Other Business, as well as a revival Death of a Salesman (with Dustin Hoffman).

Whitehead also worked repeatedly with Harold Pinter, producing the U.S. premieres of No Man's Land, Betrayal and Old Times. Other important partnerships included those with costume designer Jane Greenwood, set designer Ben Edwards (who married Greenwood and designed Whitehead's Pound Ridge house) and Harold Clurman. Whitehead and Clurman were honored by the Stella Adler Studio of Acting on May 13, when two new adjoining studios were named after the two legendary showman. Whitehead was at the event, looking as dashing as ever, in dark jacket and pocket handkerchief, in one of his final public appearances.

Ellen Adler, the daughter of Clurman and Stella Adler, recalled the oddness of the two men's friendship, given that Whitehead was all polish and class and Clurman was loud and on the course side. But each, everyone agreed, had a love and passion for the theatre that they enjoyed talking about for hours on end. Others remembered Whitehead's zest for discussing theatre for hours on end.

Clurman and Whitehead first collaborated on the 1949 Broadway production of The Member of the Wedding, which Clurman directed and Whitehead produced. They went on to work together on Bus Stop, Orpheus Descending , The Waltz of the Toreadors, A Touch of the Poet, The Time of the Cuckoo and Incident at Vichy—some of the highest peaks in both men's careers.

Other Whitehead credits include The Flowering Peach; The Visit (with Alfred Lunt and Joan Fontanne in their final Broadway performance); A Man for All Seasons (for which he won a Tony Award); Bus Stop (with Kim Stanley); Separate Tables; The Physicists; A Few Good Men; and Lillian, Master Class and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, all starring Zoe Caldwell, Whitehead's wife. He directed Caldwell in Medea.

Whitehead first produced under his own name in 1947, backing the famous Judith Anderson-John Gielgud production of Medea.

Rare encounters with musicals included Goldilocks in 1958 and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 1976. Neither was a success.

His most recent producing credit was McNally's Master Class, which won a Tony Award for Best Play, Best Actress in a Play for Zoe Caldwell, and Best Featured Actress in a play for Audra McDonald. The show was also his second longest-running hit, playing 610 performances. A Man for All Seasons had 638.

Whitehead was born in 1916 in Montreal. He began his theatrical career as an actor, first appearing on Broadway in 1936.

Among the rough, boisterous showman of Times Square, he was an anomaly: clean-cut, classy and well-spoken. Pictures of him at the height of his career (always sporting the signature pencil-thin moustache) show a figure more akin to Barrymore than Belasco.

He was recently invoked in Elaine Stritch's one-person show At Liberty as "elegant, dishy Robert Whitehead." (Stritch starred in Bus Stop and Goldilocks.) That opinion was apparently shared by many others, if the remembrances at the Stella Adler event are representative. Many a speaker remembered how the debonair producer was a figure of admiration to both amorous women and envious men. Director Gen Saks said "I want to be suave and elegant like that," joked Saks, "and affect the ladies that way." He then joked, "But then I found out he was Canadian."

Mr. Whitehead's first wife, Virginia, died in 1965, according to the New York Times. He married Caldwell in 1968. He is survived by his wife and two sons, Charlie and Sam.

—By Robert Simonson