Tony Walton, award-winning stage and screen designer, dies at 87
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Tony Walton, award-winning stage and screen designer, dies at 87
Tony Walton with the cast of “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the Irish Repertory Theater in New York on Oct. 9, 1996. Walton, a production designer who brought a broad visual imagination to the creation of distinct onstage looks for Broadway shows over a half-century, earning him three Tony Awards, died on Wednesday, March 2, 2022, at his home in Manhattan. He was 87. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- Tony Walton, a production designer who brought a broad visual imagination to the creation of distinct onstage looks for Broadway shows over a half-century, earning him three Tony Awards, died Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.

His daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, whose mother is Julie Andrews, said the cause was complications of a stroke.

In more than 50 Broadway productions, Walton collaborated on designing the sets (and sometimes, the costumes) with directors like Mike Nichols, Bob Fosse and Jerry Zaks, winning Tonys for “Pippin,” “The House of Blue Leaves” and “Guys and Dolls.”

He also worked in film, where he shared the Oscar for the art and set decoration of Fosse’s “All That Jazz” (1979); years earlier, Walton designed the interior sets and the costumes for “Mary Poppins” (1964), starring Andrews, to whom he was then married.

Walton’s television work included “Death of Salesman” (1985), which starred Dustin Hoffman, Kate Reid and John Malkovich, for which he won an Emmy.

Before the opening of his final Broadway show, “A Tale of Two Cities,” in 2008, Walton described his process of conceiving a production’s design.

“These days, I try to read the script or listen to the score as if it were a radio show and not allow myself to have a rush of imagery,” he told Playbill. “Then, after meeting with the director — and, if I’m lucky, the writer — and whatever input they may want to give, I try to imagine what I see as if it were slowly being revealed by a pool of light.”

Donald Albrecht, curator of an exhibition of Walton’s theater and film work at the Museum of the Moving Image in 1989, told The New York Times in 1992: “He never puts a Walton style on top of the material. He comes from within the work out.”

Walton worked with 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 liked working with actors,” Zaks said. “I had no appreciation for what a set could for a production. Tony pushed me to visualize the different possibilities that might be used to create a set.”

For the 1986 revival of John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves,” about a family in Queens on the day Pope Paul VI visited New York City in 1965, Zaks recalled what Guare wrote in the actor’s edition of the play.

“He referred to Manhattan as Oz to the people who lived in Queens,” Zaks said, “and out of that he came up with a set that always had Manhattan in the distance.”

In his review in the Times, Frank Rich described the impact of Walton’s set as a “Stuart Davis-like collage in which the Shaughnessys’ vulgar domestic squalor is hemmed in by the urbanscape’s oppressive brand-name signs.”

Four years later, Zaks added: “I said, ‘Tony, we could do ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ with two sofas and a Kandinsky.’ He said, ‘Trust that, believe that,’ and he made me a better director.”

The double-sided Kandinsky hung over the two red sofas on the stage in the play by Guare, about a mysterious young Black con man.

Anthony John Walton was born Oct, 24, 1934, in Walton-on-Thames, England. His father, Lancelot, was an orthopedic surgeon. His mother, Hilda (Drew) Walton was a homemaker.

He traced his love of theater to a night during World War II when he was 5 or 6. His parents had just seen the musical “Me and My Girl,” he said in the Playbill interview, and “they had paper hats and little hooters — and had obviously had a few bubbles to cheer them along the way — and they woke my sister and me up and taught us ‘The Lambeth Walk.’”

His interest in the theater blossomed at Radley College, which is near Oxfordshire, England, where he acted, directed and put on marionette shows. After serving in the Royal Air Force in Canada, he studied art and design at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. While there, he was a part-time actor and stagehand at the Wimbledon Theater.

After graduating in 1955, he moved to Manhattan, where he got a job sketching caricatures for Playbill. His first significant theater project in the United States was an off-Broadway revival of the Noel Coward musical “Conversation Piece” in 1957.

Four years later, after commuting to London where he designed productions for various shows, he was hired for 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 more than two years and used his idea to project various sky images onto a curved screen across the stage.

For the next 47 years, he toggled among musicals, comedies and dramas, like a 1973 Broadway revival of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” For one of its stars, Lillian Gish, he had designed an eggplant-colored dress that she rejected, telling him that “Russian peasants only wore beautiful pastel colors,” according to Walton Hamilton. “He said, ‘Of course, Miss Gish,’” she said, then he had it dyed one 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, Connecticut, and the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, New York, which his daughter helped found. At Bay Street, he was also the production designer of a 2003 revival of “The Boy Friend,” which was Andrews’ directorial debut.

Walton also illustrated the 12 children’s books about Dumpy the Dump Truck, and “The Great American Mousical,” that were written by Andrews and Walton Hamilton.

“Tony was my dearest and oldest friend,” Andrews, who met Walton when she was 12 and he was 13, said in a statement. “He taught me to see the world with fresh eyes, and his talent was simply monumental.”

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Genevieve LeRoy-Walton; his stepdaughter, Bridget LeRoy; five grandchildren; his sisters, Jennifer Gosney and Carol Hall; and his brother, Richard.

In 1989, Zaks recalled being uncertain about the type of hotel for the setting for the farce “Lend Me a Tenor.” Walton sketched one that had a Victorian style, then another, more compelling one, with an art deco design.

“The beauty of the art deco sketch just blew me away,” he said, “and I knew right away that when things got amok onstage, when people started slamming doors within a beautiful piece of art deco architecture, it would be much funnier.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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