Theater's `Mr. Abbott' Dies At 107

MIAMI - George Abbott, a Broadway legend who earned a Pulitzer Prize and scores of other honors while writing, directing, producing or acting in more than 120 plays, including two productions at Seattle Repertory Theatre, has died of a stroke. He was 107.

Mr. Abbott died last night at his home in Miami Beach, his wife told The Miami Herald. "It was a beautiful, peaceful exit," Joy Abbott said.

Mr. Abbott first appeared on the New York stage as an actor in 1913, when he was 26. He was still going strong well past the age of 100.

Luminaries who worked for Mr. Abbott on stage included Carol Burnett, Ethel Merman, Zero Mostel, Liza Minnelli, Gwen Verdon, Jean Stapleton and Rosalind Russell.

Among his collaborators in musicals were Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser and Stephen Sondheim.

In the 1974-75 season, Mr. Abbott staged the comedy "Life With Father" at Seattle Rep. In 1976 he returned to the Rep to direct the world premiere musical, "Music Is," Abbott's adaptation of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."

"It was wonderful to have Mr. Abbott, as he was always called, in our theater," said Peter Donnelly, who was then producing director at Seattle Rep. "It was truly a link between two generations, between the vibrant regional American theater and the best of the Broadway tradition, which Mr. Abbott personified."

Mr. Abbott directed a revival of his 1926 hit, "Broadway," that opened on his 100th birthday in 1987, and in 1989 wrote and directed "Frankie," an off-Broadway musical of "Frankenstein." In 1994, he helped revise the book for a Broadway revival of his '50s hit "Damn Yankees."

"I loved George Abbott as a man and as a friend and as a great gentleman of the theater," Gene Kelly said in a statement. "He was for me a teacher, a mentor and I will never be able to repay what I learned working for him and with him on several shows in the Broadway theater."

Mr. Abbott said he kept busy because "I'd hate not to have a job of some kind." Shortly before his 104th birthday, he joked at benefit at Carnegie Hall that he was going to write a pamphlet on "100 Tidy Tips for Longevity" including a chapter on "how to get out of a chair."

Twice, in 1934 and 1939, he was the director of five different plays that opened on Broadway in the same year. During an extraordinary 15-year stretch, 1948 through 1962, Mr. Abbott shows won 40 Tony awards, including five for himself personally as author, director, or both.

The Tony-winning productions were "Where's Charley," "Call Me Madam," "Wonderful Town," "The Pajama Game," "Damn Yankees," "New Girl In Town," "Fiorello!," "Take Her, She's Mine," and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

"Fiorello!" also won Mr. Abbott the 1960 Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics Circle Award.

In 1965 he staged "Flora, the Red Menace," whose young star, Liza Minnelli, won a best-actress Tony. Mr. Abbott's life achievements were recognized with a special Tony award in 1976. Two more Tonys came to his 1983 production of "On Your Toes," which he originally directed and wrote with Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in 1936.

Mr. Abbott's name appeared on the playbills of more than 120 productions between 1913 and 1987. He also was the last of a small group of theatrical miracle workers known as play doctors, who turned out-of-town flops into New York hits, sometimes anonymously, other times for coauthor credit.

"I think I see, when I see a play, what its faults are as far as construction," he told an interviewer. The cure is "to clarify the story, which is muddled."

Mr. Abbott also directed 10 movies, most of them in the late 1920s and early '30s. He went to Hollywood in the '50s to translate "Where's Charley," "Damn Yankees" and "The Pajama Game" to the screen, and had a dialogue-writing credit in the 1930 classic, "All Quiet on the Western Front."

A lanky, austere 6-foot-3, he was "Mr. Abbott" to all but his personal friends. His imposing presence made first-name familiarity unthinkable, even for a president of the United States.

"I don't dare call him George, because I am temporarily between jobs," said Ronald Reagan at a White House reception when Mr. Abbott was honored at the Kennedy Center in Washington in 1982.

"Mister Abbott" was the title of his 1963 autobiography.

"No one can move actors around faster, get more laughs out of a joke or slide so gracefully over a play's weak spots," Time magazine said in 1978.

Mr. Abbott was a brisk, no-nonsense director. When a performance worked, his highest praise usually was, "That's good."

"I'm in a business so full of hyperbole that I shrink from it," he said. "I hate phonies, and I think phonies exaggerate praise or blame."

George Francis Abbott was born in Forestville, N.Y., June 25, 1887. He attended the University of Rochester with an idea of becoming a newspaperman, but got the theater bug when the drama club put on a play of his.

Following his graduation, Mr. Abbott studied drama for a year at Harvard and also won a $100 prize and a professional production in Boston for his play, "The Man in the Manhole."

In 1913, Mr. Abbott appeared on Broadway for the first time, playing a drunken collegian in "Misleading Lady."

The following year he married Ednah Levis, a teacher, who died in 1930. Their daughter, Judith, became a casting director.

A marriage to Mary Sinclair, an actress, in 1946 lasted five years. In 1983, at 96, Mr. Abbott took a third wife, Joy Moana Valderrama, a 52-year-old Philadelphia fur company president.

Mr. Abbott acted regularly until 1934, by which time he also had established himself as a writer, director and producer. He had a brief, final fling as a performer in 1955, playing Mr. Antrobus in a revival of "The Skin of Our Teeth."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Abbott is survived by his sister, Isabel Juergens; two granddaughters, Amy Clark Davidson and Susan Clark Hansley; a grandson, George Clark; and six great-grandchildren.