Obituary: Sam Wanamaker
Monday 20 December 1993
IF Sam Wanamaker wasn't as famous or acclaimed an actor as he might have been, he only had himself to blame. Or rather, his obsession. For over 20 years he poured the lion's share of his considerable energy into recreating Shakespeare's wooden 'O', the Globe Theatre, on London's south bank.
Born in Chicago in 1919, Wanamaker had a dogged entrepreneurial zeal that was often mistaken for American excess in the London theatrical establishment, especially since he was always aware of the commercial imperatives attendant upon his dream to rebuild the Globe. The need to make it a going concern was seen by many as thinly veiled Disneyism.
What his detractors often forgot was that Wanamaker was a genuine Shakespearean enthusiast, man and boy. Appropriately, his debut in Shakespeare was in a plywood and paper replica of the Globe at the Chicago World Fair in 1934, when he appeared as a teenager in condensed versions of the Bard's greatest hits.
Wanamaker was 23 when he first played Broadway in Cafe Crown in 1942. The following year he was called up and spent the next three years doing his US military duty. Returning to the theatre in 1946, he took on a succession of headstrong juvenile leads in long-forgotten plays. What he hankered after was classical theatre of the kind that flourished in England. To this end he created the Festival Repertory Theatre in New York in 1950.
Two years later, by now blacklisted by Senator McCarthy's
Commie- bashers, he came to London to join Laurence Olivier's company at the St James's Theatre, playing alongside Michael Redgrave in Winter Journey, which he also directed. One of the first things he did on arriving in London was to seek out the site of Shakespeare's Globe. Instead of the elaborate memorial he'd always imagined, Wanamaker found a dirty plaque fixed to the wall of a Courage brewery bottling plant in a particularly drab Southwark back street.
From 1953 to 1960 he produced and acted in plays in London and the provinces, creating the New Shakespeare Theatre in Liverpool, where his productions included A View From the Bridge, The Rose Tattoo, The Rainmaker and Bus Stop. Another American play, The Big Knife by Clifford Odets, was a personal success for Wanamaker as actor-director at the Duke of York's in 1954. Perhaps his outstanding performance of this period, certainly the one for which he is best remenbered, was Iago to Paul Robeson's Othello in Tony Richardson's 1959 production at Stratford.
He first tackled opera in 1962, Tippett's King Priam, twice revived at Covent Garden. Wanamaker later admitted he relied on others better acquainted with operatic production to tell him what to do, including the composer himself, 'who kept laughing, patting me on the back and telling me not to worry'.
Later that year his radical reinvention of Verdi's La Forza del Destino caused a sensation at Covent Garden, and led to many other operatic offers, including, much later, the opening production at Sydney Opera House, Prokofiev's War and Peace. In 1977 he returned to Covent Garden to produce the premiere of Tippett's The Ice Break.
Wanamaker's track record shows a commendable lack of cultural elitism. He would happily go from producing Verdi to playing a cameo in a Goldie Hawn film (Private Benjamin, 1980), or directing an episode of Hawaii Five-0 (1978). He thrived on diversity and contrast, the more challenging the better. Though there were some memorable screen roles in Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1964), The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1966), the 1978 television mini-series Holocaust and, most recently, Guilty by Suspicion (1991) with Robert De Niro, Wanamaker never took film seriously enough to claim the first- division status that was his due.
From the late 1960s his colleagues in almost every job he undertook were regaled, like it or not, with the latest chapter in the Globe saga, which sometimes seemed as if it would never reach its climax. From the moment he first presented the Architectural Association with a model of the Globe he had had made at Shepperton Studios in 1969, Wanamaker was a man with a mission - to create an international focus for the study and celebration of Shakespeare.
He found a staunch ally in Theo Crosby, who became chief architect of the scheme, sharing Wanamaker's determination to make it both commercially viable (since government subsidy always seemed unlikely) and true to the Spartan style of its 16th-century blueprint - hard wooden benches, no heating, no amplification, and no roof to cover the hole in the middle.
Over two decades of fund-raising and bureaucratic battles, Wanamaker's missionary zeal was stretched to the limit, mostly by the left-wingers of Southwark Council, who tried to sabotage what they saw as indulgent elitism by claiming the Globe site back for council housing. The matter was finally settled in court, where Wanamaker's contention that the Globe project would bring employment to many and regeneration to a notably depressed area of London finally won the day.
By the late 1980s the Globe had beaten off its chief adversaries, and become virtually unassailable thanks to the patronage of the Duke of Edinburgh, Ronald Reagan, Michael Caine, Dustin Hoffman and a host of other victims of Wanamaker's persuasive powers. No longer was he perceived as the cranky Yank building castles in the air; despite an unfavourable economic climate and constantly escalating costs, the Globe really would be rebuilt and Wanamaker's dream vindicated.
In more recent years, the quest for funds took him, appropriately, all over the globe, shored up by his commitment to posterity and the firm belief that there was, just around the next corner, that elusive crock of gold. The first bays of the Globe Theatre were unveiled this year. It is scheduled to open for business in April 1995.
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