Jess Cagle
November 15, 1991 AT 05:00 AM EST

Remembering Joe Papp

When producer Joe Papp died of prostate cancer Oct. 31 at age 70, one of his proteges, William Hurt, issued a statement-a prayer, really: ”May we somehow find a way to fill the chasm his death creates.” The truth is, probably no one will. To get an idea of how much Papp and his New York Shakespeare Festival Company influenced what Americans see, consider what theater would be like without Hair, which he produced in 1967, or A Chorus Line, which began its record-breaking, 15-year Broadway run when Papp produced it in 1975.

Consider, also, what American film would be like without the actors he nurtured: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Colleen Dewhurst, James Earl Jones, Ron Silver, Raul Julia, and Mercedes Ruehl among them. The day Papp died, George C. Scott told a reporter he’d still be ”walking the streets” if it weren’t for Papp. Not since the old Hollywood moguls has one person cultivated more lasting talent.

Consider, finally, what American culture would be like without the playwrights Papp produced at his Public Theater-David Mamet, David Rabe, Ntozake Shange, and Sam Shepard (with whom he had an irreparable falling-out in 1981).

The man who grew up in a poor, Yiddish-speaking Brooklyn household was a champion of cutting-edge ideas and color-blind casting. Papp’s vision of theater as a social force encompassed everything from presenting free Shakespeare in Central Park to producing the first major play about AIDS, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, in 1985. ”We both had tempers,” says Kramer, who went on to become one of the most important AIDS activists. ”He taught me to use mine more effectively.”

Papp’s own famous temper and stubbornness served him well. After a stint in the World War II Navy, he worked as a stage manager at CBS, often using his own money to put on Shakespeare in a church on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and later in the park. In 1958, after he took the Fifth before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, CBS tried to fire him, and omnipotent politico Robert Moses tried to oust him from the park. Papp won both battles. Last year, infuriated by restrictions imposed on artists by the National Endowment for the Arts, he became a hero again to many by turning down NEA grants totaling $373,000.

Lately, his winning streak had slowed. Last June one of his five children, Tony, died of AIDS at age 29. Federal budget cuts and restraints were taking their toll on the Public Theater. His own cancer was no secret. But Papp, who is survived by his fourth wife, Gail Merrifield, never lost his flair for showmanship and self-promotion. Christopher Reeve remembers a 1989 fund-raiser at which Papp, an amateur cabaret singer, provided the entertainment. ”The high point of the evening was Joe, wandering around from table to table singing,” says Reeve. ”He didn’t have a great voice, but he had style and charisma, and a kind of recklessness. He wanted to sing — and he was going to sing.”

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