To celebrate his 99th birthday, he did what he liked to do every birthday. He directed and produced a challenging play. That year it was “The Envoy,” tackling the prickly subject of just how neutral Switzerland was during World War II.
When the millennial census was tallied, the busy theater maestro was listed among about 51,000 centenarians nationwide.
“I came in with the century. I don’t expect to go out with it,” he told The Times in 1989, not long after undergoing surgery for a blood clot near his brain.
And he in fact outlived it.
Martin Magner, who directed innovative television such as “Studio One” when the medium was young, and opera and drama on stages from Nuremburg, Germany, to North Hollywood from 1929 to 1999, has died as he predicted in the 21st and not the 20th century.
Magner died Friday in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of cancer, said his caretaker Loretta Morgenstern. He would have been 102 on March 5.
Respected around the world for what one Times critic called his “formidable and remarkably durable talent,” Magner was given a lifetime achievement award in 1989 by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle.
He was born in Stettin, Germany, to a Jewish mother and Lutheran father, and began his career as an actor in the Hamburg Chamber Theater at the age of 18.
“I played a lot of ghosts,” he once told The Times, “did many plays by Strindberg, Dr. Rank in ‘A Doll’s House,’ Mephisto. I think I was quite a good devil--a little devil.”
But when the company’s Jewish director fled under the burgeoning threat of Nazism, Magner suddenly found himself named general director. He protested that he was also Jewish, but a 1904 death certificate was produced, showing that his father, Maximilian, was Lutheran.
The director handled his uneasy role for about four years--until the night of March 21, 1933, when he was ordered to fire the seven Jewish actors in the company. He packed a suit and a tuxedo, grabbed his hat, coat and briefcase, and took the night train to Vienna.
He worked there and in Breslau, Poland, and staged opera in Prague, Czechoslovakia, for three years.
Among his memories of the European directing years were a visit from George Bernard Shaw when Magner was rehearsing his “Too Good to Be True,” eliciting the grudging compliment from Shaw: “Sometimes youth is not wasted on the young.” Another admirer was Sigmund Freud, who liked a show about a psychiatrist Magner directed so much that he offered to train Magner as a lay psychoanalyst.
But with Nazi threats and the approach of war in Europe, Magner fled to America in 1936.
Moving to Chicago, he taught at Northwestern University, directed opera and soon settled into a quarter-century as a producer and director in television. He worked for NBC in the 1940s and from 1950 until his retirement in 1965 for CBS in New York.
“‘Studio One,’ ‘Montgomery Presents.’ It was a medium that was not yet developed. We had to do that,” he said in 1989. “And we could experiment to our heart’s content. Nobody was looking over our shoulder saying, ‘Don’t do that'--because nobody knows anything.
“It was the most exciting direction because it was in your hands,” he added. “In theater, you’re backstage biting your nails. But in live television, you are in control. You edit while you’re on the air.”
Nevertheless, when mandatory retirement rules forced him out at the age of 65 in 1965, Magner returned to theater. He moved to Los Angeles and became artistic director first for the Inglewood Playhouse and later his own New Theatre Inc., which worked closely with Goethe-Institut of Los Angeles.
Magner produced and directed classics--ancient, modern, popular and seldom-done plays that enhanced Los Angeles theater educationally and artistically. Among them were the 1836 Georg Buchner play “Woyzeck,” the Ben Jonson comedy “Volpone,” Jean Paul Sartre’s “The Condemned of Altona,” Somerset Maugham’s “The Sacred Flame” and Athol Fugard’s “The Blood Knot.”
A widower, Magner left no immediate survivors. Morgenstern said a celebration of his life will be planned, and asked that memorial contributions be sent to a charity of the donor’s choice.
Although Magner willed himself to live long, he was philosophical about death, telling The Times in 1995: “I like to think that something remains [after we die]--call it the soul, the spirit. If not, what are we all here for?
“You know, I’ve been asked a hundred times if I believe in God. I always say I believe in a God that believes in me.”