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Gordon Davidson, Mark Taper Forum founder and L.A.'s 'Moses of theater,' dies at 83

Gordon Davidson, Mark Taper Forum founder and L.A.'s 'Moses of theater,' dies at 83
Gordon Davidson, shown in 2012, was for years Los Angeles theater's most prominent public face. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Gordon Davidson, the Center Theatre Group impresario who launched, defined and for 38 years personified Los Angeles' flagship theater, the Mark Taper Forum, has died, his family said. He was 83.

Davidson died Sunday night after collapsing at dinner, said his wife, Judi Davidson.

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Starting in 1967, Davidson's artistic vision, professional connections and business savvy were indispensable in transforming L.A. from a passive backwater where theatergoers largely consumed the Broadway touring shows to a wellspring for new works that won Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prizes. He directed more than 40 plays and produced more than 300 works for the Center Theatre Group, and he relished the spotlight as L.A. theater's most prominent public face until his retirement in 2005.

As Gil Cates, producing director of the Geffen Playhouse, once put it, "He was the Moses of theater in Los Angeles."

"His whole body of work at the Taper made me feel it was the place to go," actor Alan Alda said in 2004, as Davidson prepared to step down. "He puts on plays that are entertaining, that tickle your mind, that have substance." In 2001, Davidson directed Alda as physicist Richard Feynman in Peter Parnell's "QED." Having seen the Taper's boss in action over the six years it took to create, Alda said, "as far as I can tell, he does theater from the breakfast table all the way through to the midnight snack."

Michael Ritchie, the artistic director of Center Theatre Group, on Monday recalled Davidson's personal grace and sense of community, which he said grew over the 35 years they knew each other.

"Gordon was one of the few who made a conscious decision to focus on new plays and unheard voices," Ritchie said, calling Davidson a visionary.

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater in New York, recalled being flabbergasted in 1989 when Davidson offered him the job as the Taper's associate artistic director, a position he held until 1994.

"Gordon made a claim that theater was a place not to just reflect America, but to expand our idea of America," Eustis said, pausing frequently to compose himself after the news of his mentor's death. "He did that with a showman's flair, a zest for life and the unwavering support of artists he believed in."

Oskar Eustis, left, with Gordon Davidson, offstage, and actor Stephen Spinella in 1992 during an "Angels in America" rehearsal.
Oskar Eustis, left, with Gordon Davidson, offstage, and actor Stephen Spinella in 1992 during an "Angels in America" rehearsal. (Schwartz / Thompson)

Among Davidson's personal signatures were inexhaustible energy, a willingness to let theater virtually subsume his life, and a natural warmth and amiability that helped him forge connections with audiences and performers. He relished stories that embodied timely political and social issues, and he had an entrepreneur's enthusiasm for the deal-making that brought coveted plays and star actors to the 745-seat Taper and the 2,100-seat Ahmanson Theatre. Davidson realized a long-deferred dream in 2004 with the opening of the 315-seat Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City as a home for new and experimental plays.

Davidson and the Taper grabbed attention with their first show, "The Devils," which ruffled some sensibilities with its erotic depiction of Catholic clergy in 17th century France. Local fascination soon turned to national acclaim with "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer," about the moral stakes for scientists working on the atomic bomb, and "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine," documenting the legal aftermath of a 1968 protest against the Vietnam War draft. Davidson took both shows to Broadway, signaling to an impressed theater establishment that something important was afoot in Los Angeles.

"Mr. Davidson is doing some of the most valuable theater work in the country," the late New York Times critic Clive Barnes wrote in 1970.

Davidson's sweetest night of personal laurels was the 1977 Tony awards, when he won best director honors for his staging of "The Shadow Box," Michael Cristofer's play about hospice patients, and the Taper won for outstanding regional theater.

Mark Medoff's "Children of a Lesser God" was another big hit Davidson directed on Broadway after its Taper premiere in 1979. The show about a deaf woman and her teacher ran for more than two years on Broadway and its two lead players, John Rubinstein and the deaf actress Phyllis Frelich, won Tonys.

"He created an atmosphere in rehearsal that asked for everyone's input, promoted everyone's very best; he would go into whatever dark corner or step onto any precipice with a writer," Medoff said by email Monday. "My times with Gordon — or Moose, as I called him — were precious and ever illuminating.  He loved the work, he loved the people who created the work, and though he was one of the most consequential producers of the living writer in the latter half of the 20th century, he was a man of extraordinary humility, grace, and kindness."

The Mark Taper Forum's world premiere of Luis Valdez's "Zoot Suit" featured Daniel Valsez, left, Miguel Delgado in the foreground, with (in the background, from left) Roberta Delgado Esparza, Paul Mace, Mike Gomez, Enrique Castillo and Edward James Olmos.
The Mark Taper Forum's world premiere of Luis Valdez's "Zoot Suit" featured Daniel Valsez, left, Miguel Delgado in the foreground, with (in the background, from left) Roberta Delgado Esparza, Paul Mace, Mike Gomez, Enrique Castillo and Edward James Olmos. (Jay Thompson)

In 1978, Davidson and the Taper broke ground with "Zoot Suit," by Luis Valdez, for the first time exploring the denial of justice to one of L.A.'s minority communities, Mexican Americans during the 1940s.

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But the 1980s found Davidson and the Taper absorbing more salvos than plaudits. Liberal activism had given way nationally to a cheerful conservatism, personified by Ronald Reagan, and Davidson struggled to find a coherent direction for his company.

"The cord that was there in the '60s between the Taper and its audience, when the Taper knew what it was, is no longer there," Joseph Stern, executive producer of the television series "Law and Order" and leader of L.A.'s Matrix Theatre, said in 1987. "Now their political work makes statements for statements' sake."

In the early 1990s, the Taper rebounded: It was instrumental in launching Robert Schenkkan's "The Kentucky Cycle," with its dark portrayal of American history, and "Angels in America," Tony Kushner's landmark "gay fantasia" about the AIDS epidemic. The two six-hour-plus epics both were staged at the Taper in 1992 — and won back-to-back Pulitzer Prizes in 1992 and 1993, the first plays to receive that honor without a New York staging.

Never shy about playing the front man, Davidson was in his element jumping on the stage before a show for greetings and announcements, or leading a post-play discussion. He was a caricaturist's delight, a tall, stoop-shouldered captain with a helmet of wavy, untamed hair that was ever bushy but whitened over time, and prominent eyebrows that stayed stubbornly black.

He could show an impatient, steely side with his staff, but lieutenants who recalled verbal cuffings over details they'd neglected also appreciated his demanding tutelage, and some went on to top positions elsewhere, including Kenneth Brecher of the Sundance Institute.

He was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on May 7, 1933, the first of three sons of Alice Gordon Davidson, who played the piano, and Joseph Davidson, a Brooklyn College drama professor.

Davidson's passion as a teenager was science and mathematics; he entered Cornell University on a full scholarship, planning to become an engineer. But a part-time job with a General Electric unit that designed controls for guided missiles sent him fleeing to the theater department. He earned a master's degree in theater from Western Reserve University in Cleveland (now Case Western Reserve) in 1957. A year later he began working as stage manager at the Phoenix Theatre Company in New York and the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn., where he was a $40-a-week assistant to the company's leader, actor-director John Houseman, and he married Judi Swiller, a Vassar College graduate who went on to become a leading theatrical publicist in L.A.

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In 1964, Houseman invited Davidson to Los Angeles to assist on a production of "King Lear" at the Theatre Group, a UCLA-based professional stage company.

Davidson succeeded his mentor as its managing director in 1965, and soon earned a reputation for daring and panache. "The Deputy," by Rolf Hochhuth, indicted Pope Pius XII for silence in the face of the Holocaust, drawing protests from local Catholics until UCLA's chancellor, Franklin D. Murphy, a Catholic, defended it as part of the free inquiry that should be welcome on a college campus.

"It opened the door for me to get a sense of how one can take these kinds of risks — must take these kinds of risks — and people will support you," Davidson recalled in 2005.

Davidson's 1966 production of "Candide," whose cast included Carroll O'Connor, in glasses.
Davidson's 1966 production of "Candide," whose cast included Carroll O'Connor, in glasses. (Handout)

In 1966, Davidson won plaudits for his staging of Leonard Bernstein's musical "Candide," considered a problem show after it had flopped on Broadway 10 years earlier. "Gordie has a genius for digging into a play and locating those hidden truths that perhaps even the playwright overlooked," Bernstein told the New York Times in 1979. The composer drafted Davidson to direct his "Mass," which inaugurated the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971, then played the Metropolitan Opera and the Taper.

The buzz over "Candide" caught the attention of Dorothy Chandler, the wife of one Times publisher and mother of another, and the driving force behind the creation of the Music Center — and in 1966 Davidson was hired to direct the Taper.

When the Taper opened with "The Devils," it sparked an outcry from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. But with more than 30,000 subscribers for the inaugural season, and firm backing from Chandler and Lew Wasserman, the powerful Hollywood mogul who chaired Center Theatre Group's board, Davidson felt free to follow his instincts.

The Taper staged the first complete production of "Angels in America," and playwright Kushner later said Davidson's embrace in its embryonic stages had been crucial: "When nobody knew what 'Angels' was, Gordon immediately loved it and supported it and maintained this incredible level of excitement and enthusiasm all the way through."

At the 1994 Tony awards, of the four shows nominated for Broadway's best play, three had been developed and staged at the Taper: "The Kentucky Cycle"; "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," Anna Deveare Smith's solo performance documenting the riots following the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King beating; and the winner, "Angels in America."

By commissioning "Zoot Suit," the Taper provided a spotlight for playwright-director Valdez. He had pioneered Chicano theater presenting satirical, politically pointed plays to farm workers in the mid-1960s, but he recalled approaching "Zoot Suit" cautiously, sticking close to historical facts about the 1943 race rioting between Latino gangs and sailors on shore leave in L.A. That is, until Davidson urged him to let his imagination run free.

"He put me at ease, and I was able to tap back into my own work," the playwright said later. "He said, 'Be yourself, go for it.'" The result was a hit that brought in a Latino audience, although the play didn't fare as well when it transferred to Broadway.

Starting in 1990, Davidson provided a slot at the Ahmanson or the Taper for each of the six new plays August Wilson would write in the famous 10-part "cycle" dramatizing a fictional slice of the African American experience in each decade of the 20th century.

In a 2013 column by Times theater critic Charles McNulty, Davidson explained: "I consider myself fortunate to have come on the scene when I did in the mid-1960s. Women's lib, civil rights, Vietnam War, Democratic convention of '68, music rolling and rocking and turning upside down. You had to respond to that one way or another, and I decided that you can make a difference, that theater could make a difference, that it could make a change in society by holding the mirror up to nature."

After assuming control of the Ahmanson along with the Taper in 1989, Davidson found little time to direct plays, given the responsibility of producing on two stages and raising money to keep a $40-million-a-year operation solvent. After directing at least one play in nearly every season, and sometimes as many as three, he directed just five shows from 1990 to 2002. When the announcement came that he would step down in 2005, Davidson promised a closing kick, and delivered by directing four plays in his last two seasons.

"I like the community. I like the companionship. I like putting my arm around an actor and talking to them about a scene, and watching it ignite into something. I like seeing the results of a period of work that manifest in an opening night," Davidson said.

The main knock on Davidson as a director was that while he was an ace with realistic plays about ideas and events, he could founder when the material was more abstract, symbolic or fantastical.

"There's a bit of trash in the theater, where you've got to be entertaining and dazzle people a bit, however subtly you do it. Gordon doesn't have enough trash in him for that," Edward Parone, who was a chief lieutenant to Davidson from 1967 to 1979 as head of new play development, once recalled.

Davidson with Lily Tomlin, star of "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," after opening night in 2003.
Davidson with Lily Tomlin, star of "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," after opening night in 2003. (Los Angeles Times)

In his last season, Davidson directed Charles Mee Jr.'s "A Perfect Wedding," a fanciful, quasi-Shakespearean comedy, to inaugurate the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Then he found, for his Taper farewell, the kind of issue-oriented play with which he'd made his name: "Stuff Happens," English playwright David Hare's semi-documentary account of the diplomatic and political run-up to the Iraq War.

"There's only one theater with the courage to do it at the moment," Hare told USA Today during the show's American premiere at the Taper in June 2005.

Critics agreed that the Taper's leader exited, at age 72, with powers intact.

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"Gordon Davidson gives the play a bristling, relentless staging, with full awareness of the comic possibilities … and of the shadowy hints of tragedy," Richard Schickel wrote in Time magazine. In The Times, James C. Taylor said that Davidson's direction had transformed the Taper into "a setting true to the ideals of a real forum: a public meeting place for open discussion. … It is a perfect capstone to his career."

Davidson is survived by his wife; their children, Adam and Rachel; and five granddaughters.

Times staff writers David Ng and Jessica Gelt contributed to this article.

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UPDATES:

12:40 p.m. This article was updated with additional reaction to Davidson's death.

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