George Abbott

Active - 1927 - 1958  |   Born - Jun 25, 1887   |   Died - Jan 31, 1995   |   Genres - Comedy, Drama, Musical, Crime

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Born in rural New York, George Abbott was 11 when he moved with his family to Wyoming. Despite a fairly wild and wooly upbringing, Abbott had little trouble adapting to the bookish atmosphere of Harvard. Having developed an interest in drama while an undergraduate at Rochester University, Abbott studied playwriting with Harvard's George Pierce Baker, who taught the aspiring writer to dispense with such excess baggage as motivation and subtext and to get down to "the practical matter of how to make a show." And that, for the next 80 years, is what Abbott did best: He made shows, thousands of them, as an actor, writer, and director. He made his acting bow in 1913's The Misleading Lady, the first of several Broadway appearances, including the leading role in the 1924 Pulitzer Prize-winner Hell Bent for Heaven. Abbott began dabbling in playwriting during this period, scoring his first success as co-author (with James Gleason) of 1925's The Fall Guy; he would not return to acting until a 1955 revival of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth. To list all the plays on which Abbott worked, in his various aforementioned capacities, would take about a week, but a sampling would include Broadway, Coquette, Three Men on a Horse, Pal Joey, Wonderful Town, Where's Charley?, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Never Too Late; in 1959, he was director and co-author of the Pulitzer-winning musical Fiorello. The hallmarks of Abbott's stage work included rapid-fire pacing, economy, and willingness to give up-and-comers the best possible breaks; among those whose careers were boosted by Abbott were Van Johnson, Betty Field, Carol Burnett, Edie Adams, Desi Arnaz, Phyllis Thaxter, Gwen Verdon, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Jerome Robbins, and Leonard Bernstein. A benevolent despot as a director (he was called "Mr. Abbott" by one and all), Abbott was ruthless in making the sort of instant decisions that would benefit a production. When one well-known actress threatened to walk out of a show if she wasn't given a supporting player's show-stopping song, Abbott replied, "Pack!" His film career began with his direction of Why Bring That Up? (1929), a bizarre early talkie starring the blackface comedy team of Moran and Mack (some sourcebooks place his entree into movies as early as 1918, but it's likely that this was a different George Abbott). In 1930, Abbott collaborated on the screenplay of the Oscar-winning All Quiet on the Western Front; around the same time, he directed remakes of two Cecil B. De Mille silents, Manslaughter (1930) and The Cheat (1931). Never truly comfortable in Hollywood (as the uncertain pacing of his films will attest), Abbott returned to the stage full-time in 1932. Thereafter, he directed only three more films, each of them adaptations of his previous Broadway hits: Too Many Girls (1940) (the picture on which Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz met), The Pajama Game (1954), and Damn Yankees (1958), the latter two films co-directed by Stanley Donen. Outside of these, Abbott was well represented in Hollywood by film versions of most of his stage successes. In 1963, the 76-year-old Abbott celebrated his 50th year in show business by writing his autobiography, Mister Abbott; three years later, New York's Adelphi Theatre was renamed the George Abbott Theatre. Still in harness well past the century mark, George Abbott began curtailing his directorial activities only a few months before his death at the age of 106.

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