One of Broadway's legendary personalities, producer David Merrick mounted more than 80 shows over the course of his long career. Not all of these shows were successes, but Merrick cemented his reputation as a one-of-a-kind showman by hyping his would-be flops with publicity stunts that often proved more memorable than the shows themselves.
Born in St. Louis, MO, on November 27, 1912, Merrick originally planned to have a career in law, but eventually was swayed from this vocation by his love of the theater. He produced his first play -- and, as it turned out, first flop -- in 1949. Five years later, he had his first big hit with the musical Fanny. The production opened to disastrous notices, but Merrick salvaged it with a series of publicity stunts, which included the erection of the show's belly dancer in Central Park.
Such gimmicks were to mark the rest of his career. Although he had a number of bona fide hits, his failures were spectacular and often accompanied by such stunts as the one he pulled for Subways Are Sleeping, for which he hired various men with the same names as critics who hated the production to provide glowing reviews. To increase publicity for Look Back in Anger, Merrick hired a woman to jump on stage and slap one of the actors.
Merrick had his heyday during the 1950s and 1960s, when he produced such hits as A Taste of Honey, Becket, Irma La Douce, Look Back in Anger, and Cactus Flower. Although many of his productions were eventually adapted for the screen, Merrick never really crossed over into film production, although he did act in such a capacity for a handful of films during the 1970s and early '80s. Instead, he preferred to concentrate his talents on Broadway and was in large part responsible for innovating the New York theater by importing such British productions as Peter Brook's postmodern A Midsummer Night's Dream and Oliver!, and introducing American audiences to the likes of John Osborne, Tom Stoppard, and Shelagh Delaney.
Armed with countless Tonys and even more cash, Merrick had his last great hit with 42nd Street. Based on a 1933 film, the musical ran for over a decade and was performed 3,486 times before it closed in 1989. Merrick continued to work almost until his death, and died on April 25, 2000. In a twist of irony, his death came just three days after that of producer Alexander Cohen, who had long been Merrick's arch-rival.