Many veterans of the productions of producer Robert Whitehead and director Harold Clurman gathered a May 13 tribute at The Stella Adler Studio of Acting honoring the two men, who collaborated on many noteworthy productions. The event culminated in the naming of two new adjoining studios after the two legendary showman.
The surviving of the gentleman, Robert Whitehead, was on hand, dapper as always in dark jacket and pocket handkerchief. Also in attendance was his wife, actress Zoe Caldwell, who opted to sit far back in the audience and let others pay honor to her spouse.
Whitehead's sons, Charles and Sam, however, did speak. Each offered some choice memories of growing up with a dad who happened to be one of the most successful producers in Broadway history.
Director Gen Saks related irreverent stories of calming a baby Sam by driving him around in the back of the Whiteheads' car. He also—like many of those present—expressed admiration of the producer's famously elegant, refined bearing. "I want to be suave and elegant like that," joked Saks, "and affect the ladies that way. But then I found out he was Canadian."
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. The late Clurman was one of the founders of the famed Group Theatre, and thereafter distinguished himself as a director, producer, critic and general man of the theatre. He and Whitehead, who began producing in 1947, 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.
Actor Joseph Wiseman read a short statement, saying the names of the two theatrical giants reminded him of his lifelong hope for the establishment of a national theatre. David Margulies, meanwhile, read a message from actress Lois Smith, who performed in Orpheus Descending and was very close with both men.
Designers, too, were on hand—among them Ming Cho Lee and Jane Greenwood, who remembered learning by the side of Whitehead, Clurman and their frequent set designer Ben Edwards (whom Greenwood married). Greenwood was also mentored by Boris Aronson, another collaborator. "I was great working next to Mr. Whitehead and Mr. Aronson—and believe me, I called each one of them mister!"
Robert Whitehead, who, over a 50-year career produced landmark productions of everything from Arthur Miller to Euripides to Terrence McNally, will receive a 2002 Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.
Whitehead has more than 70 credits to his name. He focused almost exclusively on plays during his days as a Broadway producer and his name is associated 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. He first produced under his own name in 1947, backing the famous Judith Anderson production of Medea.
Among the producer's most lasting and rewarding relationships was that with Arthur Miller. Whitehead produced many of the playwright's mid-career 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 credits include the original productions of The Member of the Wedding (with Julie Harris); The Time of the Cuckoo (with Shirley Booth); The Flowering Peach; Orpheus Descending; 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, his wife. He directed Caldwell in Medea.
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.
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.
He is currently invoked in Elaine Stritch's one-person show At Liberty as "elegant, dishy Robert Whitehead." A soft-spoken, decorous man, he has for many years affected a dapper, pencil-thin moustache. Stritch starred in his Bus Stop and Goldilocks.
—By Robert Simonson