July 28, 1975 12:00 PM

As the traffic light clicks green, a bronze Mercedes 280 SE lays rubber for 10 yards and beats the pack by three car lengths to the next intersection. At the wheel sits a lean, black-haired man of 54 who seems 10 years younger. High white forehead, dark forceful eyes, sensitive but careful mouth—Joseph Papp looks like a Velásquez grandee, but drives like Bobby Unser. As he punches the. Mercedes between two startled taxis with inches to spare, the smoke from his large cigar ascends without a nervous ripple.

“I know where I’m going, and I usually get there,” Papp says quickly in a light, flat voice. “Personal conflicts don’t get in the way. Any need for fame has long since been satisfied, and I never did care about money. Power I don’t take personally. It’s something I need to get the job done. My job is building theater, and my job is my life.”

Quite a life. The chap in the rapidly disappearing Mercedes is the most powerful force in the American theater: a practical zealot who has done more than any man alive to develop new plays and playwrights and replace a dying business with a living art. Since presenting free Shakespeare in New York’s Central Park in 1957, Papp has branched into street theater, bought the about-to-be demolished Astor Library in lower Manhattan, wedged five good-sized theaters into its stack-space and introduced America to low-cost or no-cost theater supported by private foundations and municipal subsidy.

While old-line critics huffed at his radical politics, trendy taste and arrogant assumptions of “Pappal infallibility,” Papp refuted them by producing shows that not only broke fresh theatrical ground but became great popular successes. Among them: Hair, That Championship Season, the musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Chorus Line. The last, a brilliantly innovative musical (PEOPLE, July 7), will move uptown from Papp’s low-budget, cheap-ticket Public Theater to Broadway’s big Shubert Theater this week after bowling over critics and audiences alike. It should run for years. Collectively, Papp’s productions have won four Tonys, five Drama Critics’ Circle Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes. Two years ago, without neglecting previous commitments, Papp took over the theater division of Manhattan’s prestigious Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. When audiences there refused to sit still for the fierce young playwrights Papp thought they should be listening to, he gave them what they wanted: Liv Ullmann in a dullish but hugely successful production of A Doll’s House and the promise of more old favorites next season. Then, this spring, he defiantly announced that for the 1975-76 season he was taking over Broadway’s elegant Booth Theatre to showcase five of his most talented young playwrights, at prices as low as $2 a seat.

With 12 theaters open and $7,355,000 allocated for the more than 30 productions planned during the 1975-76 season, Papp is indisputably a one-man industry that right now is producing the most exciting theater in the Western world. Joe Papp runs the complex operation from an office at the Public Theater that looks like the shipping room in a dream factory. Basically, it’s a big gray cube, but gaudy theatrical mementos spatter the walls and litter his desk, which seems only slightly smaller than Montana.

“Today looks like a fairly typical day,” he says, then in rapid succession reads 20 letters, dictates a dozen replies, consults about the cast of a non-white production of Peer Gynt at Lincoln Center, spends 10 minutes on the phone with an enraged female playwright who feels he has “betrayed” her by not picking her play for the upcoming season at the Booth. After hustling downstairs to watch an audition in which three excellent dancers illustrate a ludicrously awful poem, he hustles upstairs to tell the director tactfully what was wrong with the piece. Then he makes short work of a picnic lunch (rotisseried chicken and fig newtons) laid out on his coffee table by the great-great-granddaughter of John Wilkes Booth—his associate and close friend, Gail Merrifield.

Papp’s busy afternoon ends with a 40-minute aural assault by a justifiably anxious composer who runs through the score of a pro-Kennedy musical that will clinch the next election for the Republicans if it ever gets produced.

“No, I don’t think Ophelia was pregnant,” Papp said thoughtfully. He was sitting about 15 rows from the stage in the empty Central Park amphitheater, waiting at dusk for a dress rehearsal of Hamlet to begin.

This is Papp’s fourth production of Hamlet in Central Park, and its style is militaristic. The single set is angular and stark, an Elsinore machine in which the actors function as cogs. At this rehearsal the gears ground alarmingly. The first public performance was scheduled for the following night and something close to panic clutched the production staff. “Papp better do something fast,” an assistant muttered, “or we got Zilch City.” Papp sat inscrutably in twilight and cigar smoke, now and then scribbling on scratch paper.

In the graveyard scene, disaster struck. When the 240-pound Laertes (John Lithgow) jumped through a trapdoor into Ophelia’s grave, he landed on a pile of prop bones and sprained his ankle so badly he fell on his butt and howled. The show stopped. Swiftly but calmly, Papp checked the damage, soothed Lithgow, ordered an ambulance. Director Michael Rudman was stunned. Was his Hamlet about to bomb? Papp chatted with him quietly, then had a relaxing word with Hamlet (Sam Waterston). As the rehearsal continued, Papp murmured to a friend: “Sometimes you can’t make a Hamlet without breaking legs.”

The critics were not so tolerant. When the production opened, most of them gave it a heavy going-over. Ignoring the reviews, Papp sturdily decided to repeat the production at Lincoln Center in the fall because of its “extraordinary potential.”

Papp’s father, a Polish-born trunkmaker named Shmuel Papirofsky, lost his job when Joe was a small boy and took to Brooklyn’s streets with a pushcart full of vegetables. Little Joe tagged along and learned the street’s hard lessons early. The experience radicalized him. He was fired from his first office job for organizing a strike and, later, while Sen. Joe McCarthy was riding high, lost his job as a stage manager at CBS because he invoked the Fifth Amendment before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Fighting back with the help of his union, Papp won a test case and forced CBS to rehire him.

Theater was a childhood passion; by the time he was a petty officer aboard a baby flattop in World War II, Papp was producing vaudeville shows. In 1953 he took over a church hall in lower Manhattan, built sets with lumber snagged from trash piles and put on six plays for a total cost of $350. Three years later Shakespeare in the Park made Papp a name to remember—and provoked a notorious fight with autocratic Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who ordered the upstart theater to close because its patrons were trampling the grass. After a four-month “Battle of Central Park,” Papp won, and Shakespeare stayed.

Next came yearly melees with New York’s mayor and city council over subsidies. “I want equality with garbage collection!” Papp announced, and when he didn’t get his way he told the city fathers bluntly: “I don’t have to take that crap.” When CBS in 1973 canceled Papp’s TV production of David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones—a play about a blind Vietnam veteran—because affiliate stations were afraid the public might object to the program, Papp turned the controversy into a headline-making fight. “It’s a cowardly cop-out,” he trumpeted, “a rotten affront to freedom of speech!” (The fray abruptly ended a fat deal by which CBS-TV had agreed to mount 13 Papp productions over 4 years.)

Papp’s wrangles with the critics have often been as vehement. When Clive Barnes of the New York Times panned Boom Boom Room, Papp telephoned at 2 a.m. to inquire in a sizzle: “What the hell kind of review was that!” And after Walter Kerr had thumbs-downed several Papp shows, the angry producer confronted him publicly at his next opening. “Please stay away. Don’t come. Keep out. I don’t want you here. You are incapable of judging new works.” Papp, on the other hand, is a ruthless critic of his own productions. He has fired dozens of actors and replaced several directors—sometimes with Director Joseph Papp.

Papp’s 13-year-old son, Anthony, looks at his father the way a robin looks at the sun. When Papp comes home from work, the boy hugs him. Papp’s public face dissolves. “How’s your cold? You’re looking much better. I see you rode your bike. Had supper yet?” Anthony hugs Gail too, and for the next 20 minutes, while Papp’s housekeeper is broiling the flounder, Papp and Gail put away a martini and talk family matters with Anthony.

Papp lives in a pleasant, unpretentious five-room flat about four blocks from the Public Theater. One wall is crammed with theatrical books and portraits; plants jungle the balcony; a small sauna is tucked into the vestibule. “I’ve figured out what comes first,” Papp says firmly, “and it’s this. I can’t do my work if I’m unhappy at home. Not anymore.”

Married and divorced three times, Papp has two older children—Susan and Michael. He wishes he knew them better. He devotes himself to Anthony, who lives with him, and to Anthony’s 17-year-old sister, Miranda, who lives with her mother, with the special intensity of a man determined not to miss any more opportunities. “I’m adventurous in my work, but in my private life I’m conservative. My son says I’m old-fashioned—I guess I am. I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, and I feel the influence. I identify with Jewishness—both the good and the bad sides.”

At 5 p.m. Papp gets a crisis call from Miguel Piñero, an ex-junkie and housebreaker who wrote Short Eyes (PEOPLE, April 29, 1974), a horrendously moving play about prison life that Papp produced. Piñero says that Bimbo Rivas, a Puerto Rican poet who acted in Short Eyes, has been wrongly arrested for breaking and entering and will be arraigned in an hour. Papp calls a lawyer, then rushes to the courthouse, where Piñero tells him that Rivas was badly beaten by police officers and is now in Bellevue Hospital.

Gulping a couple of hot dogs—the only supper he will have that night—Papp jumps into a cab and heads for Bellevue. Outside the emergency room, Rivas’ wife, mother and children are waiting with about 20 friends, most of them Puerto Rican poets and playwrights. The scene is emotional. Rivas’ neck has been badly wrenched and X rays are being taken. When the Puerto Ricans recognize Papp, they come forward and shake hands with deep feeling. After Papp’s lawyer arrives to take charge of the case, Papp moves quietly into the background.

Later, Papp decides to walk home, even though home is 40 blocks from the hospital. He walks at a trot and talks at a gallop. “Theater is more immediate than film. It has danger, like gambling. The writer bets on the director and the director bets on the actor. At every performance, everyone is at risk. But Stanislavski was wrong. When actors take creative control, or directors for that matter, theater is in trouble. The writer is the key man. Without playwrights, theater cannot begin to exist.

“New playwrights are coming along fast. David Rabe, Ed Bullins, John Guare, Miguel Piñero, Jason Miller, Myrna Lamb, Alice Childress, Tom Babe, Michael Weller, Anthony Scully, Anne Burr, Dennis Reardon, John Ford Noonan. But we need more. We live in a time of monsters. Most people can’t bear to look at the realities of our world. We need playwrights who can hold the mirror up to horror. Theater like that is a force. It can hurt you and change you. Maybe it can change the world.”

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