Robert Whitehead, "Gentleman Producer," Dies at 86
Three weeks after winning a Tony Award for lifetime achievement, producer Robert Whitehead died of cancer this past weekend. He was 86.
At a time when many observers of the theater are bemoaning the lack of strong-minded, independent producers willing to champion serious material, Whitehead's loss is deeply felt. From his collaborations with Harold Clurman in the 1950s to a Tony-winning production of Master Class starring his wife, Zoe Caldwell, in 1996, Whitehead enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a man of the theater.
"It's hard to say that [Whitehead] was the last of the gentlemen producers because he was sort of sui generis in that category," said Ben Brantley, chief theater critic of The New York Times, in response to TheaterMania's request for a comment on Whitehead's death. "He was almost the only gentleman producer." Brantley noted that Whitehead's death perhaps marks the final passing of an era when the theater and its players held an ineffable fascination for the American public; he further observed that "Whitehead came from an age in which it was possible to be a theatrical producer and still be a figure of glamour, someone who might be portrayed in a movie, that suave and quintessentially urban creature. I don't think there's that romance associated with the theater anymore, not as there was when he was coming along."
Born in Montreal, Whitehead came to New York originally to pursue acting, and he didn't do too poorly at it: Before beginning his producing career with Medea (in Robinson Jeffers's translation) starring Judith Anderson, Whitehead was performing on Broadway alongside Emlyn Williams and doing Burlesque with Bert Lahr in Marblehead. But he was destined to work behind the scenes, to create artistically solid yet commercially viable work through a series of extraordinary collaborations. One such collaboration was with Clurman, with whom he worked on 14 shows; another was with Arthur Miller, whose After the Fall opened the Lincoln Center Repertory Theater, under the leadership of Whitehead and Elia Kazan, in 1964.
Perhaps Whitehead's most remarkable partnership was with the actress Zoe Caldwell, whom he married in 1968. That same year, he presented her in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, for which she picked up a Tony. Caldwell went on to receive two more Tonys with Whitehed's help, one for her work in a 1982 Broadway Medea that was directed by Whitehead (with Judith Anderson in the role of the Nurse) and another for her portryal of opera legend Maria Callas in Whitehead's 1996 production of Terrence McNally's Master Class.
Other plays presented by Whitehead on Broadway over the years included Terrence Rattigan's Separate Tables, Clifford Odets's Golden Boy, Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending, and Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet. A later success was 1989's A Few Good Men by Aaron Sorkin, who went on to create television's The West Wing.
For some reason, Whitehead was far less fortunate when producing musicals: Goldilocks, The Conquering Hero, and the Leonard Bernstein-Alan Jay Lerner tuner 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were among his flops of that genre.