Andrei Belgrader, Director who influenced future stars, dies at 75

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Andrei Belgrader, Director who influenced future stars, dies at 75
His Yale Rep and American Repertory Theater productions included early work by Cherry Jones, Mark Linn-Baker and more, and he directed starry Off Broadway shows.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Andrei Belgrader, who directed numerous high-profile stage productions off-Broadway and in regional theaters and was an important influence in the careers of John Turturro, Cherry Jones, Tony Shalhoub and other respected actors, died Feb. 22 in Los Angeles. He was 75.

His wife, Caroline Hall, said the cause was lung cancer.

Belgrader emigrated in the 1970s after chafing at the artistic censorship in his native Romania. He caught the eye of Robert Brustein, founder of the Yale Repertory Theater, who by the end of the 1970s had him directing there. When Brustein, who had also been dean of the Yale School of Drama, moved to Harvard University and founded the American Repertory Theater there in 1980, Belgrader began directing productions there as well.

Both ART and Yale Rep were proving grounds for young actors, and Belgrader challenged them in ways that had a lasting effect.

“He would make odd but incredibly imaginative requests of you as an actor and would be delighted when you could fulfill these requests,” Mark Linn-Baker, who was Touchstone in Belgrader’s 1979 “As You Like It” at Yale Rep while still a student at the Yale drama school, said by email.

Four years later, Linn-Baker, who would soon find television fame on the long-running ABC series “Perfect Strangers,” played Vladimir, one of the leads (John Bottoms was Estragon, the other of Beckett’s famous tramps), in “Waiting for Godot” at ART, directed by Belgrader. Kevin Kelly of The Boston Globe called the production “a perfect Beckettian vaudeville act on the precipitous edge of the void.” Also in that production, in the supporting role of Pozzo, was Shalhoub, now an Emmy and Tony Award winner.

“One of his great skills was bringing people out of their comfort zones in terms of their performances,” Shalhoub, who two decades later would recruit Belgrader to direct episodes of his hit TV series, “Monk,” said in a phone interview. “He had a way of instilling courage and moments of abandon.”

Belgrader, who was partial to Beckett, revisited “Godot” in 1998 at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan, with Shalhoub elevated to the role of Vladimir and playing opposite Turturro as Estragon, and Christopher Lloyd as Pozzo. Turturro, who had studied under Belgrader decades earlier at Yale, worked frequently with him over the years, including in an acclaimed staging of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” at Classic Stage in 2011. Ben Brantley of The New York Times named it one of the 10 best productions of the year. “Andrei Belgrader’s funny, sad and freshly conceived interpretation opened the walls between Chekhov’s then and our now,” he wrote.

Turturro, in a phone interview, said Belgrader excelled at helping actors mine playwrights like Beckett and Chekhov for the deepest meanings and emotions in their work. The key, he said, was that he gave the actors time to make the discoveries.

“I remember many times in rehearsals you would think, ‘This is terrible,’ and he would just be very, very patient,” Turturro said.

It was something Turturro experienced in 2008 in a Belgrader-directed production of Beckett’s “Endgame” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in which the character he played, Hamm, has a particularly difficult monologue.

“He worked me to death in that monologue,” Turturro said. “He wasn’t unsatisfied, but he knew you could go further, and then one day you did.”

Andrei Belgrader was born March 31, 1946, in Oravita, Romania. His father, Tiberiu, was an economist, and his mother, Magdalena (Gross) Belgrader, was a translator.

He began training to be an engineer but didn’t like it and instead gained entry to the Institute of Theater and Film in Bucharest, where he began directing.

“In Romania, theater was more important, I think, than in the West,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1993. “It was really the only form where, in a hidden way, things could be discussed.”

Well, up to a point. Romania was under communist rule, and Belgrader had his first run-ins with censors while still a student.

“They banned almost everything, even Romanian comedies,” he said. “Our trick was to do classical plays, because it was hard to say Shakespeare was anti-communist.”

But battles with censors eventually wore him down, and in the late 1970s, he left the country. Hall said he spent time in a refugee camp in Greece and eventually, with the help of a charity, was able to come to New York, where he stayed with other Romanians and drove a cab to improve his sparse English.

“Cabbies in New York don’t speak English, and they don’t know where they’re going,” he told The Chronicle. “I was one of them.”

Somehow he managed to mount two small theater productions, Buchner’s “Woyzeck” and Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida.” The second is the one that caught Brustein’s eye.

Belgrader was still not particularly fluent when he began directing at Yale Rep.

“It was very peculiar,” Thomas Derrah, who was in the cast of the 1979 “As You Like It” with Linn-Baker, told The Globe in 1998. “He was trying to communicate what he wanted me to do, and there wasn’t a whole lot of English in there.”

A year later, at ART in Cambridge, he mounted another production of the same play and essentially started the career of Jones, who had only recently graduated from the drama program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh when she was cast as Rosalind.

“In June 1980 I was the last audition of the last day of auditions for Andrei’s ‘As You Like It’ at the ART,” Jones, now a multiple Emmy and Tony Award winner, said by email. “Andrei was unlike any director or man I’d ever seen. And with an accent I’d never heard. In an instant he transformed the trajectory of my life.”

Stanley Tucci, Elaine Stritch, Oliver Platt, Dianne Wiest and Marisa Tomei are also on the long list of actors directed by Belgrader over the years. When he wasn’t directing, he was teaching — at Yale, Juilliard, the University of California at San Diego and, at his death, the University of Southern California.

He gravitated toward challenging plays that had dark elements but that also had humor.

“He’s a great farceur,” Brustein once said of him. “He finds that area where farce and dreams meet.”

In addition to his wife, whom he married in 2001, Belgrader is survived by a daughter, Grace, and a sister, Mariana Augustin. He lived in Los Angeles.

On a 2005 episode of “Monk,” Belgrader showed that he could direct even the most inexperienced actors. In the episode, “Mr. Monk and the Kid,” a beloved one to fans of the series, Shalhoub’s obsessive-compulsive title character gets help solving a crime from a 22-month-old boy (played by 2-year-old twins, Preston and Trevor Shores). The toddler character had a lot of screen time, placing particular demands on Belgrader.

“It was a tricky episode,” Shalhoub said, “and he knocked it out of the park.”

Jones said that Belgrader liked to demonstrate that his dog, Hector, could sing along to Janis Joplin.

“Before he put the recording on he told me not to laugh during Hector’s truly astonishing howls,” she recalled. “He said, ‘You must respect the artist.’ And he meant it. Whether a dog or an actor.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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