Tony Walton, award-winning stage and screen designer, dies aged 87
Tony Walton, a production designer who for over half a century brought a broad visual imagination to creating distinctive stage looks for Broadway shows and earned him three Tony Awards, died Wednesday at his Manhattan home. He was 87.
His daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, whose mother is Julie Andrews, said the cause was complications from a stroke.
In more than 50 Broadway productions, Mr. Walton has worked on set design (and sometimes costumes) with directors such as Mike Nichols, Bob Fosse and Jerry Zaks, winning Tonys for “Pippin”, “The House of Blue Leaves” and “Boys and dolls.”
He also worked in film, receiving the Oscar for the art and decoration of Mr. Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979); Years earlier, Mr. Walton designed the interiors and costumes for “Mary Poppins” (1964) starring Ms. Andrews, to whom he was then married.
Mr. Walton’s television credits included Death of Salesman (1985), starring Dustin Hoffman, Kate Reid and John Malkovich, for which he won an Emmy.
Prior to the opening of his final Broadway show, A Tale of Two Cities, in 2008, Mr. Walton described his process of coming up with a production design.
“Nowadays, I try to read the script or listen to the score as if it were a radio show and not allow myself to be overwhelmed by imagery,” he told Playbill. “Then, after meeting the director — and, if I’m lucky, the writer — and whatever they want to give, I try to imagine what I’m seeing as being slowly revealed by a cone of light.”
Donald Albrecht, the curator of a 1989 exhibition of Mr. Walton’s theater and film work at the Museum of the Moving Image, told the New York Times in 1992: “He never puts a Walton style on the material. He’s getting out of work.”
Mr. Walton has worked with Mr. Zaks on many Broadway shows including Guys and Dolls, a revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Anything Goes.
“I started directing because I love working with actors,” Mr. Zaks said in a phone interview. “I had no understanding of what a set could do for a production. Tony pushed me to imagine the different ways that could be used to create a set.”
For the 1986 revival of John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves about a family in Sunnyside, Queens, on the day Pope Paul VI. Visiting New York City in 1965, Mr. Zaks recalled what Mr. Guare had written in the actor’s edition of the play.
“He referred to Manhattan as Oz to the people who lived in Queens,” said Mr. Zaks, “and it created a set that always had Manhattan in the distance.”
In his review in The New York Times, Frank Rich described the effect of Mr. Walton’s set as a “Stuart Davis-esque collage in which the vulgar domestic neglect of the Shaughnessys is constrained by the oppressive hallmarks of the cityscape”.
Four years later, Mr. Zaks added, “I said, ‘Tony, we could do Six Degrees of Separation with two couches and a Kandinsky.’ He said, ‘Trust in it, believe in it,’ and he made me a better director.”
The double-sided Kandinsky hung over the two red sofas on stage in Mr. Guare’s play about a mysterious young black con artist.
Anthony John Walton was born on October 24, 1934 in Walton-on-Thames, England. His father Lancelot was an orthopedist. His mother, Hilda (Drew) Walton, was a homemaker.
He traced his love of theater to one night during World War II when he was 5 or 6 years old. His parents had just seen the musical Me and My Girl, he said in the Playbill interview, and “they had paper hats and little horns — and obviously had some bubbles to cheer them up along the way — and they woke my sister.” and me and taught us ‘The Lambeth Walk’.
His interest in theater blossomed at Radley College, near Oxfordshire, where he acted, directed and performed puppet shows. After serving in the Royal Air Force in Canada, he studied art and design at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. There he was a part-time actor and stagehand at Wimbledon Theatre.
After graduating in 1955, he moved to Manhattan, where he got a job drawing cartoons for Playbill. His first major theatrical venture in the United States was an Off-Broadway revival of Noel Coward’s musical Conversation Piece in 1957.
Four years later, after commuting to London where he designed productions for various shows, he was cast in his first Broadway play, Once There Was a Russian, set in 18th-century Crimea; it closed on opening night.
His next show, the original production of A Funny Thing, ran for two years and used his idea to project various images of the sky onto a curved screen above the stage.
Over the next 47 years, he alternated between musicals, comedy and drama, including a 1973 Broadway revival of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. He had designed an aubergine dress for one of his stars, Lillian Gish, but she rejected it and told him that “Russian peasants wore only beautiful pastels,” according to Ms. Walton Hamilton. “He said, ‘Of course, Miss Gish,'” she said, then had it dyed a shade darker with each subsequent cleaning.
In the 1990s he began directing at the Irish Repertory Theater in Manhattan, the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., and the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor in New York, where his daughter helped found. He was also production designer on Bay Street for a 2003 revival of The Boy Friend, Ms. Andrews’ directorial debut.
Mr. Walton also illustrated the 12 children’s books about Dumpy the Dump Truck and The Great American Mousical written by Ms. Andrews and Ms. Walton Hamilton.
“Tony was my dearest and oldest friend,” Ms Andrews, who met Mr Walton when she was 12 and he was 13, said in a statement. “He taught me to see the world in new ways and his talent was just monumental.”
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Genevieve LeRoy-Walton; his stepdaughter Bridget LeRoy; five grandchildren; his sisters Jennifer Gosley and Carol Hall; and his brother Richard.
Mr. Zaks recalled being unsure about the nature of the hotel for the setting of the farce Lend Me a Tenor in 1989. Mr. Walton designed one in the Victorian style, then another, more convincing in Art Deco design.
“I was just blown away by the beauty of the Art Deco sketch,” he said, “and I knew right away that it would be a lot more fun when things went amok on stage when people started banging doors in a beautiful piece.” Art Deco architecture slam. ”