TO PEOPLE WHO KNOW THEATER, HE WAS MR. Broadway. To legions of stage luminaries, he was Mr. Abbott (or Mr. A), the man dozens of them—José Ferrer, Shirley MacLaine, Jean Stapleton and Carol Burnett, to name a few—credited with giving them their first big break. And yet, despite his admirers—and his 100-plus theatrical credits—when George Francis Abbott died at 107 of a stroke in his sleep at home in Miami Beach on Jan. 31, there was one goal he had yet to achieve: No one called him George.
“I don’t feel either formal or formidable,” he wrote in his 1963 autobiography, Mister Abbott, “but I guess I must be.” He was that, and much more. For more than 70 years, he towered over Broadway as playwright, director, actor and producer. With his trademark snappy pacing, he earned a reputation as a peerless script doctor—legend has it he told director Hal Prince to condense a three-act Cabaret (1966) into two. His many honors—a shared Pulitzer with Jerome Weidman for the book of 1959’s Fiorello! and Tonys for 1954’s Pajama Game, 1955’s Damn Yankees and 1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—were capped by a special Distinguished Career Achievement Tony in 1976 and a Kennedy Center award in 1982. “Everybody on Broadway today has been influenced by George Abbott,” says Gwen Verdon, who was cast by Mr. A as the lead in Damn Yankees 42 years ago. Richard Adler, who wrote the music for Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, concurs: “He was a modest man, a genius. And he was the best-looking man you’ve ever seen in your life.”
Born on June 25, 1887, in Forestville, N.Y., George was the son of George Burwell Abbott, a government land agent, and his wife, May, a homemaker. After graduating from the University of Rochester and a year studying playwriting at Harvard, he at first found work as an actor. It wasn’t until 1926, with the show Broadway, which he cowrote and directed, that he had his first hit. “I sat in the audience opening night to see if people were reading their programs,” he said. “When they do that, you know they’re bored.” Few people were reading that night.
Broadway became his home and, sometimes, a substitute family. His first wife, teacher Ednah Levis, died of cancer in 1930 after 16 years of marriage. His second marriage in 1946, to actress Mary Sinclair, ended in divorce five years later. In 1983, at 96, Abbott married Joy Valderrama, a furrier more than 40 years his junior with whom he enjoyed golfing and dancing into his 100s. When asked the secret of his longevity, Abbott, whose final work was helping rework the 1994 revival of Damn Yankees, advised simply, “Have fun. And go home when you’re tired.”