New York theatrical producer Joseph Papp, 70, the flamboyant showman who brought "A Chorus Line" to Broadway and free productions of Shakespeare to Central Park and who was a godfather to a generation of American playwrights, died Oct. 31 of prostate cancer at his Greenwich Village apartment.
Mr. Papp was the founder in 1954 of the New York Shakespeare Festival, out of which grew the Public Theater, one of the country's leading nonprofit theaters.
A champion of the avant-garde and off-beat, Mr. Papp also was influential in the careers of theater figures such as Sam Shepard, David Rabe and Michael Bennett, with whom he created "A Chorus Line," Broadway's longest-running musical. It won a Pulitzer Prize for drama, as did two other Papp productions, "That Championship Season" and "No Place to Be Somebody."
Mr. Papp showed "more courage to do more things than anybody else," Bernard Jacobs, president of the Shubert Organization, told a New York Times interviewer in 1985. "I think he's one of the major reasons we still have a theater today."
The Papp production of the musical "Hair" in 1967 brought the sounds, colors and suspect aromas of a burgeoning counterculture to mainstream audiences. Other Papp successes included a revival of "The Pirates of Penzance," "Plenty," a musical version of "Two Gentlemen of Verona," "Sticks and Bones," "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Isn't Enuf," "Drood" and "Cuba and His Teddy Bear."
Tempestuous, adrenalin-driven and sometimes melancholy, Mr. Papp bounded from subject to subject, sometimes breaking with colleagues and getting into public disputes with theater critics. In later years, his causes also included the preservation of old theater buildings in Manhattan.
"I can't stand it when people are indifferent to me," he once said. "I don't mind it if they get angry, want to kill me. But I want some kind of reaction."
His personal taste leaned to plays that had something to say about contemporary issues. An early advocate of research into AIDS, which killed his 28-year-old son, Anthony, last year, he produced "The Normal Heart," a groundbreaking work on the illness that enjoyed a successful run at the Public Theater.
During a tenure at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in the 1970s, Mr. Papp presented disturbing dramas such as "Boom Boom Room" and "Short Eyes" that, one writer observed, "seemed deliberately chosen to upset uptown audiences' complacent expectations."
He often returned to the Vietnam War as a theme for such plays as "Sticks and Bones," "More Than You Deserve" and "The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel," and kept a stark white signpost as a symbol of peace in the lobby of his Public Theater.
Joe Papp was born Joseph Papirofsky, to an impoverished immigrant trunk maker and his seamstress wife, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. His family moved often, usually just ahead of the landlord. Mr. Papp was to recall later that as a child he longed to live in a house with real lamps, instead of bare ceiling light bulbs.
When he was 12, he discovered Shakespeare, whose plays he read as an escape from the bleakness of work as an adolescent that included shining shoes, hawking peanuts, plucking chickens and employment in a laundry.
"I love the sound of the English language because we spoke only Yiddish at home," he said. He came to believe that Shakespeare could be spiritually transporting, particularly for young audiences.
Mr. Papp put on his first amateur productions as a Navy man during World War II. Later he studied acting and directing at the Actors Lab in Los Angeles and then joined the National Company's touring production of "Death of a Salesman." In the 1950s, while working at CBS as a television stage manager for "I've Got a Secret" and "Studio One," he shortened his name to Papp.
After convincing a minister that his church on Manhattan's Lower East Side looked like William Shakespeare's original Globe Theater, Mr. Papp took over the basement and in 1954 laid the groundwork for the New York Shakespeare Festival, while continuing to work at CBS.
In the summer of 1956, he took the show on the road, putting on plays in the back of a flatbed truck. When his mobile stage collapsed in the middle of Central Park, Mr. Papp created Shakespeare in the park. It became a summer tradition, with annual free productions, supported by foundations and private donations collected by Mr. Papp, an indefatigable grantsman.
In 1962 Mr. Papp built Central Park's Delacorte Theater, while continuing to tour with his city-funded mobile plays. Many of today's best-known American actors, including James Earl Jones and George C. Scott, appeared in these early productions.
In 1987, Mr. Papp began a cycle of all of Shakespeare's 36 plays, presented either in the Public Theater complex or in Central Park and featuring stars such as Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jeff Goldblum, Mandy Patinkin, Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, F. Murray Abraham, Christopher Reeve and Tracey Ullman.
Although he was able to successfully transfer some plays to television production, Mr. Papp's foray into film was short-lived. His celluloid "Pirates of Penzance," with Kevin Kline and Linda Rondstadt, was a flop, and his film version of "Plenty," starring Meryl Streep, failed to charm the critics.
Mr. Papp's death comes at a time when his theater is facing financial difficulties. The operating budget for the current season was scaled back to $10.5 million, down from $13.5 million last season. To protest creative restrictions imposed under federal funding, Mr. Papp had refused for the last two years to accept money from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Mr. Papp had four marriages, three of which ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, Gail Merrifield Papp, a New York Shakespeare Festival staff member, and four children from earlier marriages, Susan, Michael, Barbara and Miranda.