A Curtain Falls

updated 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

A Brooklyn boy brought the Bard to the Park—and barked at critics

JOSEPH PAPP LIVED A LIFE NEARLY AS tempestuous as anything he ever brought to the stage. Charismatic and controversial, the exuberant impresario who founded the New York Shakespeare Festival and helped create such classics as A Chorus Line embraced long shots and scoffed at the theater establishment. In the course of producing more than 350 plays, he uncovered an astonishing trove of new talent: It was Papp who promoted playwrights David Mamet, John Guare and David Rabe and who championed young actors including George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst and Meryl Streep. After his death from prostate cancer on Oct. 31, Papp was mourned not only by his wife of 15 years, Gail Merrifield, 56, four surviving children, three grandchildren and three ex-wives but also by a generation of theatergoers who had been touched by his productions.

In a private service held Nov. 1 at the Public Theater and attended by Raul Julia, Kevin Kline and Al Pacino, among others, the Brooklyn-born Papp, 70, was hailed as a champion of the theater. His protégés remembered him as an openly emotional man who never backed away from a battle. William Hurt (who appeared in his production of A Midsummer Nights Dream) called him "the most courageous man in American theater." Mandy Patinkin (whom Papp cast in The Winter's Tale) added, "He was my friend, my teacher, my father and my boss. He was my family...."

If his ad hoc family was loving and loyal, Papp's biological family was marked by violence and deprivation. Born Yosl Papirofsky in 1921, he was the second of four children of Eastern European immigrants; father Shmuel was a trunkmaker and mother Yetta a seamstress. Struggle was a constant; the Papirofskys often moved under cover of darkness—one step ahead of their creditors—and Yosl plucked chickens and shined shoes to help bring in money. "Surrounded by terror," as Papp once put it, the boy received frequent beatings.

Not until the Yiddish-speaking Yosl was old enough to go to school did he discover the English language—and the healing power of the written word. At 12, when he went into the local public library and discovered the works of William Shakespeare, his life was changed forever. The theater became his spiritual home. In the Army during World War II, he staged armed-services variety shows whose stars included Seaman Bob Fosse. On the GI Bill he studied acting and directing at the Actors Lab in L.A. Papp then took a job as a stage manager for CBS in Manhattan and embarked on his mission of becoming a producer. Using sheer nerve and his own skimpy savings, he mounted bare-bones but ambitious productions. His first efforts were staged in the basement of a church. Later he presented a version of The Taming of the Shrew with Colleen Dewhurst and in 1957 took his troupe on the road, where they performed on a flatbed truck. "He was a tough little guy," journalist Joe Hurley, a coworker at CBS, has said. "His dream was to do Shakespeare free and outdoors."

That Papp did. When his flatbed truck broke down in Central Park, he stayed there, and with funds that he helped pull together, the Delacorte Theater was completed in 1962. Papp often dropped by to watch audiences taking their seats for the free productions. "When the moon is out and the wind begins to whisper," he said, "it's theater at its best."

In 1966 Papp prevailed upon the city to turn over the Astor Library as headquarters for the Public Theater. There, during the following decades, he staged such ground-breaking plays as Hair and The Normal Heart. He battled with critics, fostered such minority playwrights as Ntozake Shange and persuaded Linda Ronstadt to do Gilbert and Sullivan. With choreographer Michael Bennett, Papp developed A Chorus Line and used its proceeds to fuel his work at the Public. Overall, the plays that Papp produced collected three Pulitzer prizes, 28 Tonys and more than 90 Obies.

A voracious intellectual who reminded one writer of "a Renaissance scholar on Benzedrine," Papp lived in an unpretentious Greenwich Village flat where he worked closely with Merrifield, an executive at the Public. Age slowed him not at all; it was his five-year struggle against cancer and the death of son Tony, 29 (one of two children with third wife Peggy), from AIDS last June, that finally curbed his pace. In August, Papp appointed Public Theater artistic associate JoAnne Akalaitis his successor in the job of artistic-director. Asked about her plans for the organization he had founded, the emaciated but intrepid showman replied, "It remains to be seen what will happen, but isn't that exciting?"

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