George Furth: Actor and playwright who collaborated with Stephen Sondheim on the musical 'Company'

The actor and playwright George Furth had a prolific career as a performer, but will be best remembered for his collaborations with the composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, notably as librettist for the musicals Company (1970) and Merrily We Roll Along (1977). Company, which has been revived twice on Broadway and once in London, won him a Tony award, and though Merrily We Roll Along was a disastrous flop initially, it has been revised and revived successfully several times, and its score is considered one of Sondheim's finest. Furth also had a hit with a play, Twigs (1971), and collaborated with Sondheim on a comedy-thriller, Getting Away With Murder (1995).

Of German extraction, he was born George Schweinfurth in Chicago in 1932, and studied speech and drama at Northwestern University and Columbia. He made his Broadway début as an actor in the military comedy A Cook for Mr General (1961), in which Dustin Hoffman also had a small role. Furth's first film role was in the screen version of Gore Vidal's absorbing political drama The Best Man (1964).

Later the same year he was cast in a musical, Hot Spot, that proved to be one of Broadway's legendary disasters. Starring Judy Holliday as a bumbling Peace Corps volunteer, its producers called in several directors for help, including Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Herbert Ross, but the show's problems were insurmountable. One cast member, Sheila Smith, said, "Poor George Furth didn't know who he was playing. One week he was a newscaster, and the next week a senator's son."

The show did, though, introduce Furth to Sondheim, who contributed some (uncredited) lyrics, and the two became good friends. After Hot Spot's five-week run, Furth returned to Hollywood, where he specialised in nerdish or nervous characters. His most memorable role was that of Woodcock, the resolutely loyal train guard in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), who refuses to let his train be robbed ("Mr Butch, you know if it were my money, there's nobody I'd rather have steal it than you") despite being blown up twice by the outlaws.

Other films included The Boston Strangler (1968), Blazing Saddles (1974), and two films, Shampoo (1975) and Bulworth (1998), with Warren Beatty, who was a good friend. In a television movie, The Scarlett O'Hara War (1980), he played the director George Cukor, to whom he bore a slight resemblance, and he featured in countless television series, including The Defenders, I Dream of Jeannie, L.A. Law, Little House on the Prairie and Murder, She Wrote.

When Furth's analyst told him that writing plays would be good therapy, he wrote 11 short one-act plays examining various aspects of relationships between couples. A Broadway production that was to star Kim Stanley in all the female roles failed to find financing, and a depressed Furth called Sondheim, who suggested they call the producer Harold Prince, "the person whose advice I most respect".

"Hal said, 'I think we should make a musical out of these'," Sondheim recalled:

George came to New York and we talked about how to shape these disparate pieces into a large form, because some of them were sketches rather than plays. As we talked we realised that what the plays had in common was a couple and a third person, and it dawned on us that the third person should be the same person.

The character became Robert, a 35-year-old who is given a surprise birthday party by his friends, five married couples. Since Furth's plays provided no narrative progression, Sondheim's songs were either Brechtian comments on events, or virtual playlets on their own, such as "Barcelona", in which Robert's air hostess one-night-stand debates whether to miss her early-morning flight and, to Robert's horror, decides to stay. Another song sequence, "Getting Married Today", encapsulates the manic state of a bride on her wedding day.

During its Boston tryout the show's bittersweet portrayal of marriage ("It's the concerts you enjoy together, neighbours you annoy together, children you destroy together. . .") did not find favour, and Robert's climactic song, "Happily Ever After" was considered nihilistic and anti-marriage. "We wanted a show," said Sondheim, "where the audience would sit for two hours screaming their heads off with laughter, and then go home and not be able to sleep." Furth and Prince softened the ending, and Sondheim wrote the more affirmative "Being Alive", after which he said, "Company says very clearly that to be emotionally committed to somebody is very difficult, but to be alone is impossible."

The result was a hit on Broadway and in London, where the Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson wrote, "It is extraordinary that a musical, the most trivial of theatrical forms, should be able to plunge, as Company does with perfect congruity, into the profound depths of human perplexity and misery." Furth's book (condensed from less than half of his original playlets) provides witty, sometimes acerbic and sometimes touching linking material between the numbers. "The thing that moves me," said Sondheim, "is a line that was written by George, not me. It's when Amy says, 'Blow out your candles and make a wish. Want something. Want something.' I get chills listening to it." Company won seven Tony Awards, including one for Furth for his book.

In 1971 Furth turned four of his earlier playlets that had not been used for Company into the play Twigs – four interconnecting acts about a quartet of women from the same family, all played by one actress, Sada Thompson. A television version in 1975 starred Carol Burnett. Furth's book for the Broadway musical The Act (1977), in which Liza Minnelli (directed by Martin Scorsese) played a star who recalls her earlier life while giving an opening-night performance, provided efficient material to link a series of show-stopping numbers such as "City Lights" and "Arthur in the Afternoon".

Furth teamed again with Sondheim and Prince for Merrily We Roll Along, adapted from a play by Moss Hart and George Kaufman that had had a modest run in 1934. It had an audacious reverse construction, following the lives of three friends from middle age back to their youth. Though Sondheim wrote a magnificent score, the casting of very young players proved ineffectual.

In 1986 Furth's most serious play, Precious Sons, opened on Broadway. It was a conscious effort to join the ranks of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and William Inge, but though judged respectfully by critics, it was considered that Furth's intentions outstripped his achievement. His third and last collaboration with Sondheim was a droll comedy thriller, Getting Away With Murder, a light-hearted homage to Agatha Christie. One critic advised Sondheim "not to give up the day job", and the play's run was brief.

The friends of Furth, and there were many, testify to his sharp wit and sense of fun. He is reported to have been very excited about the highly successful revival of Company on Broadway last year, and its subsequent taping for PBS and a DVD. He hardly ever gave interviews, though, stating, "That's why I have so many friends."

Tom Vallance

George Schweinfurth (George Furth), actor and playwright: born Chicago, Illinois 14 December 1932; died Santa Monica, California 11 August 2008.

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