Dwight Hemion, 81; Producer Of Glamorous TV Specials

Dwight Hemion won 18 Emmys for TV extravaganzas. A
Dwight Hemion won 18 Emmys for TV extravaganzas. A "Star Wars Holiday Special" was a rare dramatic bomb. (Family Photo)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 31, 2008

Dwight Hemion, 81, a director and producer considered the dean of televised concert and variety specials and who worked with stars including Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley, Luciano Pavarotti and Chewbacca, died Jan. 28 at his home in Rectortown, Va. He had renal failure.

Mr. Hemion was among the most honored craftsmen of his profession, which tried to bring elaborate, Broadway-style productions into America's living rooms. He worked closely with producer Gary Smith for much of his career.

He received 47 Emmy Award nominations and won 18 for such programs as "Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music" (1965), "Bette Midler: Ol' Red Hair Is Back" (1977), and "Baryshnikov on Broadway (1980), starring the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. He also received Emmys for directing the Kennedy Center Honors in 1989 and 1990.

"He defined what the network spectacular was in the 1960s and 1970s," said Ron Simon, a curator at the Paley Center for Media, a New York-based museum of radio and television history. "He was the go-to guy for any established performer to create a special with."

Simon said Mr. Hemion's talent was working with an impressive range of entertainers, from pop singers to great classical artists, and creating a spectacle to appeal to broad tastes.

Such moments might feature Baryshnikov, wearing a white top hat, singing "One" from "A Chorus Line" and rendering a medley from American musicals with Liza Minnelli.

Mr. Hemion came to notice in the 1950s directing comedian Steve Allen as host of "The Tonight Show" and on his self-titled comedy-variety program.

In 1965, two of Mr. Hemion's specials were nominated for Emmys: "Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music" and "My Name Is Barbra," with Streisand memorably singing "Second Hand Rose" as she cavorted through the Bergdorf Goodman department store.

"Streisand was great to light," he told National Public Radio in 2002. "She had great features and beautiful skin, great fingers. If ever you see her, look at her hands because that's what it's all about with her."

Of Sinatra, he said: "You had to be a psychiatrist to work with him in those days. But, of course, there was nobody like him. And we finished the dress rehearsal, and he said, 'Let's take a look at it.' So we all sat in the control room and watched it . . . and he said, 'That's it. I can't do it any better.' And so we put the dress rehearsal on the air."

Dwight Arlington Hemion was born March 14, 1926, in New Haven, Conn. He grew up in Verona, N.J., where his father had a mortuary. After high school, he served in the Army Air Forces in the Pacific as a belly gunner on bombers. Upon his return, a family connection led to a job as a gofer at ABC-TV in New York. His first directing job was a televised boxing match in Philadelphia.

Mr. Hemion's twin Emmy nominations in 1965 cemented his career in variety and comedy specials. He kept winning Emmys, for shows featuring Burt Bacharach, Ben Vereen, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorm¿, Goldie Hawn and Sheena Easton. He twice won for directing Streisand, for "Barbra Streisand . . . and Other Musical Instruments" (1973) and "Barbra Streisand: The Concert" (1994).

He also earned a place in television history for directing what he acknowledged was a legendarily awful "Star Wars Holiday Special" from 1978, which featured Bea Arthur as an alien cantina chanteuse. Art Carney, Jefferson Starship and the towering Chewbacca also were among the cast in a project "Star Wars" movie producer George Lucas later disowned.

Mr. Hemion survived the debacle and soon began collaborating with George Stevens Jr., founding producer of the Kennedy Center Honors, on projects including the annual "Christmas in Washington" shows taped at the National Building Museum.

"It's not Elia Kazan, wringing emotion out of the actors," said Stevens, referring to the legendary Actors Studio co-founder and director. "It's making the performance appealing to the viewer, and Dwight was really the best at that. His strength was putting things in front of the camera in a way that was graceful, stylish and tasteful, of which there is not an overabundance in commercial television."

Mr. Hemion, who also directed presidential inaugurals of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, settled in Rectortown from Los Angeles two years ago.

His marriage to Joyce Hogue Hemion ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 34 years, Katherine Morrissy "Kit" Hemion of Rectortown; two children from his first marriage, Katherine E. Hemion of London and Dwight G. Hemion of Alma, Wis.; three stepchildren, Anne Brady of Far Hills, N.J., Katherine Vanoff of Upperville, Va., and Peter Lusk of Pound Ridge, N.Y.; and six grandchildren.

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