TV, stage writer won Tony Award for 'Kismet'

Times Staff Writer

Luther Davis, a writer for stage, film and television who won a Tony Award for the Broadway musical "Kismet" and whose screen credits include "Lady in A Cage," a thriller that starred Olivia de Havilland, has died. He was 91.

Davis died July 29 at Calvary Hospital in New York City of natural causes according to his wife, actress Jennifer Bassey Davis. He had been a resident of New York City.

"Kismet" was a lavish spectacle that opened in 1953. Davis and Charles Lederer wrote the book, which brought the pair a Tony award in 1954.

The show also won the Tony for best musical.

A fable set in ancient Baghdad with opulent production numbers and music adapted from classical scores by Alexander Borodin, the show included two memorable songs, "Stranger in Paradise" and "Baubles, Bangles and Beads."

Alfred Drake played the leading role, a public poet who spends his days at the bazaar with a beautiful daughter played by Doretta Morrow. Costumes and sets were "splendid and voluptuous," wrote Brooks Atkinson in a review of the show for the New York Times, but the overall effect was "pretty heavy on its feet."

The show was a box office success that ran on Broadway for more than a year and later toured.

Davis and Lederer teamed up again for a movie version of "Kismet" in 1955, directed by Vincente Minnelli that starred Howard Keel and Ann Blyth. Luther is also credited for the musical libretto of a 1967 television adaptation starring Jose Ferrer and Anna Maria Alberghetti.

Another of his major Broadway shows was "Timbuktu!" which opened in 1978. Davis produced it and wrote the book. The story is based on "Kismet" and set in Africa with an all-black cast that included Eartha Kitt and Melba Moore in the original production. The show was nominated for four Tony awards.

While he was working on "Timbuktu!," Davis met his future wife when she and a group of friends were financial backers for the production.

"He was the most gracious man, who treated everyone the same, a sewer cleaner and a duchess," she said of her companion of 30 years. They married in 2005.

Davis' most recent Broadway show, "Grand Hotel," opened in 1989 and won five Tony awards including best director and choreographer awards for Tommy Tune. Davis wrote the book, inspired by a novel written in the 1920s by Vicki Baum.

"Grand Hotel" is set in a luxury hotel in Berlin with a cast of characters that included a fading prima ballerina (Liliane Montevecchi), a gigolo (Pierre Dulaine) and a baron (David Carroll) along with a bellboy, chauffeur and other members of the hotel staff. It ran on Broadway for more than two years.

Davis received a Tony nomination but did not win the award.

Starting in the late 1940s, Davis had a parallel career in the movie business. He kept a home in Los Angeles for more than 25 years, his wife said, and wrote more than a dozen movie scripts. In one of his early screenplays, "The Hucksters," (1947), Clark Gable plays an advertising agency man trying to bring integrity to the business. Deborah Kerr, Sydney Greenstreet and Ava Gardner are also in the film.

"A Lion is in the Streets" (1953) written by Davis, stars James Cagney as a Southern peddler who makes his way into politics and goes after corrupt businessmen.

"Lady in a Cage" (1964), which stars Ann Sothern and James Caan along with De Havilland, is a psychological thriller. De Havilland plays a wealthy woman who gets stuck in an elevator in her house and is tormented by thugs who break in.

Davis was born in Brooklyn, New York, Aug. 29, 1916.

He graduated from Culver Military Academy in Indiana and went on to graduate from Yale University in the late 1930s. During World War II he served in the United States Army Air Forces where he worked in intelligence. He was stationed in Burma, China and Europe and rose to the rank of major before he completed military service.

Davis was married twice. His first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughters, Rory Bolender of Los Angeles and Noel Davis of Orange, and grandson Cody Rivers Duval.

Contributions in his name can be made to The Actors Fund website, www.actorsfund.org.

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mary.rourke@latimes.com

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