Arthur Penn, Director of Stage and Screen's Miracle Worker, Dies at 88

Obituaries   Arthur Penn, Director of Stage and Screen's Miracle Worker, Dies at 88
Arthur Penn, a serious-minded director who, rare among his colleagues and despite a sporadic output, left a significant mark in both film and theatre, died Sept. 28, the day after his 88th birthday, according to friends in the industry. Mr. Penn had been in ill health over the past year.

Arthur Penn
Arthur Penn

By the time Mr. Penn directed the 1967 movie "Bonnie and Clyde," an iconic film that ushered in an era of counterculture-inflected excellence in Hollywood, he had long established himself in the live television and stage worlds of New York City. In the late 1950s and early '60s, he staged back-to-back hit productions of two plays by William Gibson, Two for the Seesaw and The Miracle Worker, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatic adaptation of James Agee's "A Death in the Family," All the Way Home. Mr. Penn was nominated for a Tony Award for all three plays. He also directed, in 1960, the highly influential and sophisticated comedy performance, An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, which made stars of its two featured players.

"Over the past five years," observed the New York Times at the time, "the emergence of Arthur Penn as a New York director has probably been the quietest assumption of authority ever to take place in show business."

These successes earned him a ticket to filmmaking. His first assignment was the well-received western, "The Left Handed Gun," an early Paul Newman vehicle that he gave a Freudian spin. He found the experience disagreeable, however. "I finished shooting, they said 'Goodbye!,'" he recalled. He didn't see the finished film until it hit the movie houses.

He then brought his stage triumph, The Miracle Worker, to the screen in 1962, collecting even more acclaim. He retained the original stage cast — Patty Duke as blind and deaf child Helen Keller and Anne Bancroft as her patient, determined teacher, Annie Sullivan — and made stars out of them both. Both actors won Oscars for their performances, and Mr. Penn was nominated.

A couple lesser successes followed: the French New Wave-influenced film "Mickey One" (starring future collaborator Warren Beatty), which flopped; and "The Chase," adapted from a Horton Foote play, which was recut by producer Sam Spiegel. He was also fired by star Burt Lancaster from the movie "The Train." Soon after, however, Mr. Penn turned the film world on its ear with "Bonnie and Clyde." "Beatty and I both had a sense that we were better than we had showed," he said. Starring Beatty and Faye Dunaway as youthful, sexy, improvising versions of the original Depression-era gangsters, the film reinvented the oft-told history as a counterculture tale of righteous, yet reckless, rebels turning against the status quo of a corrupt society. It's choppy editing and sudden shifts in tone from the comic to the tragic again showed the influence of Nouvelle Vague filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. (In fact, those two directors were once considered for the movie.) It also introduced sex and heightened violence into movies in a way they hadn't been before. The final sequence, in which the anti-heroes are slain in an extended, slow-motion balletic hail of bullets, is among the most memorable and controversial in film history.

Attacked when it was released, it was subsequently championed by influential critic Pauline Kael, and came to be embraced as a modern classic. Despite this triumph, Mr. Penn's film career didn't necessarily flourish afterwards. He found some success with 1970's "Little Big Man," a retelling of America's conquest of the West and the Indian nation, as seen through the eyes of the only survivor of Custer's Last Stand (Dustin Hoffman, who aged 70 years in the film). The movie also encapsulated the leftist politics the filmmaker frequently brought to his work; Custer is portrayed as a vain, lying sociopath. Critics found much to admire, too, in the modern film noir "Night Moves" in 1975. But failures like "The Missouri Breaks" and "Four Friends" slowed down his career. Misses "Target" and "Dead of Winter" in the 1980s didn't help matters.

Mr. Penn made a triumphant, and highly unexpected, return to Broadway in 2002 with Fortune's Fool, an adaptation of Turgenev novel. It won favor for its expert storytelling, fluid staging and ensemble acting. The cast included Alan Bates in his last Broadway appearance, and Frank Langella, who won a Tony Award. Mr. Penn returned two years later, with less success, with a revival of Sly Fox, Larry Gelbart's retelling of Ben Jonson's comic tale of greed, Volpone. (He had also directed the original 1976 Broadway production starring George C. Scott.) His background with the Actors Studio stayed with him late in his career; in rehearsals for the Sly Fox revival, he invited the cast to go off book and find the essence of the scene before going back to the script.

Arthur Penn was born Sept. 27, 1922, in Philadelphia, PA. He older brother, Irving, became a renowned photographer. His parents separated when he was young, and Mr. Penn spent many of his formative years living with his mother and brother in New York and New Hampshire. In 1943 he enlisted in the U.S. Army Infantry and reported for training at Fort Jackson, where he soon started a performing theatre troupe that would entertain fellow soldiers.

After the war, he studied acting at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and then the Universities of Perugia and Florence in Italy. Returning to the U.S. in 1948, he continued to train at the Actors' Studio and with Michael Chekhov in Los Angeles. All this training resulted in few acting jobs, but he found his ticket into show business when he began working at a new television studio, NBC-TV. He moved up from floor manager to writing teleplays to directing.

He soon piloted episodes for "The Gulf Playhouse," "Goodyear Television Playhouse," "The Philco Television Playhouse," "Playwrights '56" and "Playhouse 90." One 1957 episode of the latter would become the play The Miracle Worker.

He is survived by his wife, Peggy Maurer, and two children, Matthew and Molly.

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