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Entertainment & Arts

Peter H. Hunt, Tony winner for ‘1776’ and ‘Touched by an Angel’ director, dies at 81

Tony Award-winning director Peter H. Hunt, pictured at his Los Angeles home in 1997
Tony Award-winning director Peter H. Hunt, photoraphed at his Los Angeles home in 1997.
(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

Peter H. Hunt, the theater, film and television director who won a Tony Award for the original run of the musical “1776,” has died. He was 81.

Hunt died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles from complications of Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Barbette Hunt.

Hunt rose to prominence in 1969 when he directed the inaugural Broadway production of “1776,” with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, book by Peter Stone and a cast that included William Daniels and Betty Buckley. The show, which logged more than 1,200 performances in its three-year run, won three Tony Awards, including best musical, best performance by a featured actor (Ron Holgate) and best director (Hunt).

A revival of “1776,” which chronicles the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence with a focus on John Adams, was among the productions recently canceled by Center Theatre Group amid the fallout from the coronavirus crisis.

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“He loved theatricality, he loved big theatrical gestures,” said friend and colleague David Rambo, a television writer and producer who collaborated with Hunt on staging classic plays to benefit the Actors Fund. “Peter personified classic Broadway to me.”

Hunt went on to direct Columbia Pictures’ film adaptation of “1776,” which was released in 1972 and starred many of the same actors as the Broadway run. The film received mixed reviews but helped reawaken a lifelong love of Hollywood in Hunt, who relocated from New York to Los Angeles that year and began cultivating a career as a television director.

Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin, left, and William Daniels as John Adams in the movie adaptation of "1776."
Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin, left, and William Daniels as John Adams in the movie adaptation of “1776,” directed on both film and Broadway by Peter H. Hunt, who has died at 81.
(Columbia Pictures)

Hunt’s television credits are varied, including the pilot episode of “Baywatch,” dozens of episodes of “Touched by an Angel,” plus the early 1970s series “Adam’s Rib” with Blythe Danner and Ken Howard. Hunt also produced and directed four feature adaptations in the Peabody Award-winning Mark Twain series on PBS, including “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Life on the Mississippi.”

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“He got involved with a whole bunch of really awesome people out here who were doing exciting TV work,” remembered Barbette, his wife of 48 years. " It just seemed like TV was cooking in terms of trying new pilots every season, and they were really good.”

There was also the matter of raising a family, and Barbette said L.A. felt like the natural place to do that.

Peter Huls Hunt was born in Pasadena in 1938, the son of Gertrude and George Smith Hunt II, an industrial designer from Minnesota. Among his brothers was Gordon Hunt, the late father of actress Helen Hunt.

Peter Hunt was enamored with the theater from an early age and attended the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut before heading off to Yale and receiving a master’s degree from Yale School of Drama.

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He began his theater career in 1958 as a lighting designer with the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, where he met Barbette as well as up-and-coming actors who would populate his world professionally and personally, including Danner, Frank Langella and Olympia Dukakis.

“I don’t think he missed one summer,” said Barbette, who worked at the festival as an apprentice. “We put up one show a week, so it was intense, to say the least. It was like a family.”

In 1989 Hunt became the artistic director of Williamstown, a position he held until 1995. There he helped to cultivate the work of artistic talent including Calista Flockhart, Gwyneth Paltrow and Matthew Perry.

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Hunt came back to Broadway a few times after his triumph with “1776,” once in 1970 with the musical “Georgy,” which closed after only four days, and again in 1975, when he directed the musical “Goodtime Charley.” The latter was nominated for seven Tony Awards and earned Hunt a Drama Desk Award nomination.

Hunt’s last Broadway foray was in 1997 with “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” which received three Tony nominations including best musical.

“‘Vibrant’ is the word that everybody seems to use to describe him,” Barbette said. “He was very energetic, really, really smart, and truly interested in everything.”

Hunt is survived by Barbette and their children, Max Hunt, Daisy Hunt and Amy Hunt, as well as his brother George Hunt.


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