Film and Theater Historian John Willis Dies | Bleader

Monday, June 28, 2010

Film and Theater Historian John Willis Dies

Posted By on 06.28.10 at 01:09 PM

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John A. Willis (left) with actor Dylan Baker
  • John A. Willis (left) with actor Dylan Baker

John A. Willis, whose photo-packed Theatre World and Screen World book series were essential reading for generations of movie and theater fans, died June 25 at his home in New York City of complications from lung cancer. He was 93. Acknowledged as one of America's most important theater and film historians, Willis was also the longtime producer of the Theatre World Awards, given to actors for outstanding Broadway and Off-Broadway debut performances. It's one of the oldest awards bestowed on New York stage actors; recipients over the years have included Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Carol Channing, Judy Holliday, Alan Alda, Bernadette Peters, and John Leguizamo, among many others.

Willis's Screen World books kept annual records of foreign and domestic film releases, complete with cast and crew information. And his Theatre World books chronicled the seasons of Broadway, off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, and regional theater, as well as reporting actors’ biographies, obituaries, and major theatrical awards. As vital as the information contained in those books was, their main appeal was the plentiful array of photographs they contained—production and publicity photos as well as head shots of established stars and exciting newcomers. Both annual series have been published by Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group, since 1993. In 2009 Ben Hodges took over editing Theatre World and Barry Monush took over Screen World.

Willis was born in Morristown, Tennessee, on October 16, 1916. He graduated cum laude from Milligan College in Johnson City, Tennessee, in 1938, and received an MA from the University of Tennessee in 1941. After serving in the U.S. navy and naval reserves during World War II, he moved to New York City to become an actor. While working in summer stock, he applied for a position typing entries in Theatre World and Screen World, which were then edited by Daniel Blum. Willis got the job, having been the assistant typing teacher at Milligan.

Willis took over editing the books in 1964, after Blum died. Twice married, he was also a teacher in the New York City public schools for more than 20 years.

On behalf of Screen World, Willis received the 1998 National Board of Review William K. Everson Award for Film History. On behalf of Theatre World he received the first Outstanding Special Lucille Lortel Award in 1993, a special Drama Desk Award in 1994, a 2001 Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre, and the 2003 Broadway Theater Institute Lifetime Achievement Award. And in 1996 he received what may be the ultimate theatrical honor: a caricature on the wall of Sardi’s.

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