Joan Worth, 72; helped keep Lenny Bruce’s comedy alive

Times Staff Writer

Joan Worth, an artist who became a theatrical writer-producer in her later years to carry on her late husband’s work in furthering the legacies of comedian Lenny Bruce and black nationalist leader Malcolm X, has died. She was 72.

Worth, the widow of writer-producer Marvin Worth, died Dec. 8 at her home in Beverly Hills, said her daughter Missy Worth. No cause of death was announced.

While she pursued a career as a painter during their 44-year marriage, Joan Worth worked as a close collaborator with her husband -- writing film treatments and helping him rework scripts -- as he amassed a string of credits as a producer, including the biopics “Lenny” and “Malcolm X,” and “The Rose,” loosely based on the life of Janis Joplin.

Marvin Worth had been Bruce’s early manager, and he and his wife were close friends of both Bruce, who died of a morphine overdose in 1966, and Malcolm X, who was assassinated in 1965.


After Bruce died, Marvin Worth acquired the rights to the controversial comedian’s life story and his written and recorded works. Worth was one of the producers of Julian Barry’s play “Lenny,” which opened on Broadway in 1971 and starred Cliff Gorman; and he was the producer of the 1974 film of the same name starring Dustin Hoffman.

Worth was also a producer of the Oscar-nominated 1972 documentary “Malcolm X” and a producer of the 1992 Spike Lee movie “Malcolm X,” starring Denzel Washington.

Missy Worth said her father felt that Bruce’s and Malcolm X’s works “were important for future generations to understand and to learn and to know.”

After Worth died of lung cancer in 1998 at the age of 72, his wife took over as president of Marvin Worth Productions.


“When my dad passed away, she wanted all of what was his life and what was important to him to continue, no matter what,” Missy Worth said. “We were always amazed that kids didn’t know who Lenny Bruce was.”

In 1999, Joan Worth produced Barry’s “Lenny” at the Queens Theatre in London; Eddie Izzard starred and Peter Hall directed.

She also took over working with producer Hal Willner on a six-CD compilation, “Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware,” released in 2004.

And with producer-writer Alan Sacks, she co-wrote, co-produced and co-directed the one-man show “Lenny Bruce: In His Own Words.”


The show, starring Jason Fisher, premiered at M Bar and Restaurant in Hollywood in 2005. It played at the Zipper Theatre in New York in February.

Sacks, who developed various projects with Marvin Worth years ago, said Joan Worth called him to work with her on the one-man show. Together, he said, they crafted Bruce’s comedy material so it had “a relevancy for our times.”

“We spent a year and a half on the writing, casting and directing of the show,” Sacks said. “It was truly a great creative experience we shared, and I’ll miss that.”

Before her death, Worth was writing “Malcolm X,” a one-man show, and working on a proposed documentary in which various stars would provide their interpretations of Bruce’s comedy bits.


She was also looking for a publisher for a biography of her husband that she wrote.

With her mother’s death, Missy Worth said, the family will take over Marvin Worth Productions “and continue the legacies.”

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 8, 1934, Worth majored in drama at Bard College but left school before graduating when she got married.

Worth, who battled alcoholism until her mid-30s, was a strong proponent of Alcoholics Anonymous.


“She was 36 years sober when she died,” Missy Worth said. “She worked with many rehab clinics and people in Alcoholics Anonymous from the moment she got sober and spoke at AA meetings throughout the world.”

Worth is also survived by her son, writer-producer Jody Worth; daughter Daniele Worth-Ochoa; and four grandchildren.

A private funeral has been held.

Donations in Worth’s name may be made to Alcoholics Anonymous, Los Angeles Central Office, 4311 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 104, Los Angeles, CA 90010.