April 30, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Having written many appreciations these past few years of theatrical greats after they have shuffled off this mortal coil, the one I undertake today on the esteemed director and lighting designer Peter H. Hunt is a difficult one. You see, Peter was my good friend with whom I shared many hours as he entertained me chapter and verse (and in exquisite detail) about his long life in the theatre, especially as it related to his directing the original Broadway production of 1776. He died on Monday at age eighty-one after a battle with Parkinson’s disease and, though I knew it was coming, I am deeply saddened by his passing.
Peter H. Hunt (1938–2020) at home in Los Angeles.
It’s an open secret that my affection for 1776 is a profound one. I wrote about it in a solo chapter in Up in the Cheap Seats, and it is to this day the show I paid to see more than any other (thirteen times). When I undertook the interview process for my book to get as many backstories as I could, it was my friend Ken Howard (Thomas Jefferson) who facilitated an introduction. After connecting through email, Peter invited me to his house way up at the top of Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. I will never forget arriving there on July 25, 2013 (it had to be in July, right?) and ringing the doorbell. I could never have imagined that very soon thereafter this would become a regular trip I’d make over and over again.
But before launching into all this, let me briefly tell you a bit about Peter Hunt career-wise, for those unfamiliar with his accomplishments.
Having a keen interest in theatre as a teenager, and like so many who have come before and after him, Peter entertained thoughts of becoming an actor. He performed in plays both at Hotchkiss, the prominent prep school in Connecticut which he attended, and at Yale, where he did his undergraduate work. While at Yale, one of his teachers invited him to be an apprentice electrician at a summer theatre he had recently founded — the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. The teacher was Nikos Psacharopoulos, a wildly charismatic director/producer who would eventually spend every summer of his life as Artistic Director at WTF, beginning in 1955 until his death in 1989. His replacement? Peter Hunt, who ran it from 1989–95. Prolific to the max, Peter contributed to more than 200 productions at WTF as designer, director, and actor. “I wouldn’t be anything like the artist I am today without the faith Nikos put in me and the opportunities he gave me,” Peter told me. “To cap it off, there was the gift of his friendship, which began the day we met and lasted until the day he died.”
Ken Howard as J. Pierrepont Finch and Austin Pendleton as Bud Frump
in How to Succeed…
directed by Peter Hunt at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (1968).
When Peter went onto the Yale School of Drama for his graduate degree, a number of factors helped make the decision for him. “Dad said I’m not paying for it if you’re going to act. So, I wasn’t allowed to major in theatre. I majored in history of art, which was a blessing in disguise. Also, the Vietnam draft was rearing its ugly head, so staying in school was my way out. Never took a course in directing. I acted and lit while at Yale.”
Also, while in New Haven (and through a connection of his father’s) he got the chance to assist Abe Feder, then lighting Camelot during its out of town tryout in 1960. “Lighting design drew me into the theatre in an even more powerful way than acting.” Years later, it meant a great deal to him to hire Feder before his retirement in 1979, and light both Scratch and Goodtime Charley, which Peter directed on Broadway.
Lighting also became an entrée into directing for Peter when he got his break with a production of The Fantasticks at Hartford Stage in Connecticut (the twenty-six-year-old Frank Langella played “the old actor”). And as mentioned, Nikos gave him opportunities at Williamstown to do every sort of play and musical — from Shakespeare to How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying—while still moonlighting as a lighting designer. It wasn’t until 1968 that he got the chance to direct a musical in New York, mainly due to its being authored by his good friend from Yale, Austin Pendleton. But Booth, which told the story of Edwin Booth, the great 19th century actor and his father Junius, had a brief limited run at Lincoln Center, and if it weren’t for one guy seeing it, Peter might never have had such an auspicious start on Broadway. By chance, the legendary director/choreographer Jerome Robbins liked Booth, and who, after turning down (more than once) a new musical his friend Stuart Ostrow was trying to get up and running, he recommended Peter for the job. He didn’t even know Peter’s name; he just told Ostrow “this young kid might be who you’re looking for.”
Which is how at twenty-nine years old, Peter got to direct 1776, to this day the youngest director to ever win the Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical.
“Big Blue,” the name Peter called his original copy of the script for 1776,
which I was able to read from cover to cover. It included all his notes and ideas
before he and Peter Stone worked on cutting it down.
Though he never found as great a single success in the theatre as his first one, Peter continued to direct not only plays and musicals, but film and television (he happily directed the film of 1776 in 1972). He also helmed television pilots, a great many episodic series, and some very fine films for PBS from the Mark Twain library, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi.
But back to July 25, 2013. Entering Peter’s home, I was warmly welcomed and introduced to his wife of many years, Barbette, as well as Lulu, their very affectionate German Shepherd. Guided to a comfy chair in his expansive living room, Peter took the one to my right (those seating assignments never changed in all our discussions). Once I began my questions, he lit up right away at the realization that my knowledge and love of 1776 was tried and true. A born storyteller with a magnificent booming voice, Peter would act out all the participants in the show, both onstage and off. Our session lasted an hour and forty-one minutes (yes, of course, I still have the audio) and it was a delight from start to finish.
This was early in my process of gathering material for my book and I left on a cloud. It was a genuine thrill to have met with someone who was an integral part of the creation of a musical that had such a deep effect on me since I was twelve years old. But no sooner had I driven down the steep descent from Mulholland Drive than my phone rang, its service being restored since reception at the top is virtually impossible. It was Peter. “We’re not done by a long shot. Can you come back tomorrow?”
And so, I did.
But it wasn’t until my third visit that I began to sense there was an ulterior motive in my being sent for. Easing it into our conversation, Peter quietly asked: “Do you think you’d be interested in working with me on something autobiographical? A book or something?” Deeply flattered, I told him that it was of great interest to me. It wasn’t long after that we hit on the idea that his stories, and the nearly endless parade of great actors he had worked with, might make for a very exciting one-person play. Thus, began our collaboration and many, many hours more of taped interviews, all of which I will hold onto forever and a day.
Running out of space, and perhaps to tease and tantalize, here are just a sampling of the names Peter had boatloads of stories about: Richard Benjamin, Betty Buckley, Kate Burton, Blythe Danner, Ted Danson, Bette Davis, Brian Dennehy, Will Geer, Lillian Gish, Tony Goldwyn, Joel Grey, Tammy Grimes, Julie Harris, Edward Herrman, Pat Hingle, Hal Holbrook, Celeste Holm, Barnard Hughes, Kim Hunter, Anne Jackson, Michael Jeter, Raul Julia, Stacy Keach, Howard Keel, Richard Kiley, Brian Keith, Christine Lahti, Frank Langella, Norman Lloyd, E.G. Marshall, Elaine May, Rue McClanahan, Frances McDormand, Roddy McDowell, Donna McKechnie, Mary Tyler Moore, Robert Morse, James Naughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, Donald O’Connor, Geraldine Page, Gwyneth Paltrow, Christopher Plummer, Oliver Reed, Christopher Reeve, Ann Reinking, Mickey Rooney, William Shatner, Sharon Stone, Elaine Stritch, Rod Taylor, Richard Thomas, Sada Thompson, Marisa Tomei, Christopher Walken, Eli Wallach, Sam Waterston, David Wayne, Sigourney Weaver and James Whitmore (in fact, Whitmore got an Oscar nomination for Give ’em Hall, Harry, which Peter directed). And of course, William Daniels, Howard DaSilva and Ken Howard, the stars of both the stage and screen versions of 1776.
And that’s only a partial list.
William Daniels, Howard DaSilva, Betty Buckley and Ken Howard in 1776 (1969).
Sadly, illness prevented the one-man show from going further, but it didn’t stifle my friendship with Peter. Lunches with him at the Palm in Beverly Hills (he would have a martini — very old school), as well as lunches in New York at the London Hotel, where he was fond of staying, are cherished memories. My heart goes out to Barbette, and their children and grandchildren. Peter possessed a grand life force, and I was lucky to be able to get a piece of some of that for a brief time over a few years. for which I will always be grateful.
Let me leave you with one of my favorite stories Peter told me about the time he was lighting a 1959 Williamstown production of Our Town, directed by Nikos Psacharopoulos. Portraying the Stage Manager was none other than the play’s author, Thornton Wilder himself.
Thornton Wilder as the Stage Manager in Our Town (1959).
“One day during rehearsals, Nikos came running towards Thornton and me in a frenzied state, crying out: ‘Thornton, we have a problem. There is a scene that isn’t working!’
Wilder looked at him askew. ‘Isn’t working? …’
‘Yes,” shouted Nikos. ‘It’s the one with the kids on the ladders and he’s trying to get the answers to the algebra questions!’
This is, of course, the wonderful scene in the play where George and Emily, the kids who live next door to one another and fall in love, are perched on ladders while she helps him with his homework.
‘What are you doing to it?’ Wilder asked.
‘Well, I’m playing all the values. It’s really all about how much he loves her, and he wants to marry her and — ’
Thornton’s jaw dropped, and then he interrupted. ‘No, no, Nikos. Stop, stop!’ And patiently, he explained: ‘It’s very simple. He’s dumb and she’s smart. He wants the answers to the test. That’s all.’
Nikos looked stunned. ‘But Thornton, it’s a love scene.’
And Thornton said, ‘That’s for the audience!’
That simple lesson has sustained me for the last sixty years as a director.”
Rest in peace, Peter.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org