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The Boston Globe

Obituaries

Theater director Nicky Martin dies at 75

Championed local actors, new writers

Nicholas Martin pictured in Williamstown in 2010.

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

Nicholas Martin pictured in Williamstown in 2010.

Nicholas Martin — a director whose strong affinity for actors and appetite for creative challenges helped him build a distinguished career that ranged from Boston to Broadway, comedy to tragedy, and classics to experimental work — has died at 75.

Mr. Martin, who had been battling throat cancer, died Wednesday evening at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, said Patrick Herold, his longtime agent and friend.

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An ebullient figure widely known as Nicky, Mr. Martin served as artistic director at two major theater companies: Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, where he was seen as a champion of local actors and playwrights during a tenure that lasted from 2000 to 2008, and Williamstown Theatre Festival, from 2008 to 2010.

“He was young always, even
at 70,’’ playwright and actress Melinda Lopez said Thursday. “He never lost that genuine, starry-eyed enthusiasm for what the theater can do.’’

Mr. Martin did not turn to directing until he was in his early 40s, after a lengthy stint as an actor. He was forthright about the drinking problem that bedeviled him in the 1970s. “I was unemployable by reputation, but I was still invited to parties,’’ he told American Theatre magazine.

Mr. Martin enjoyed a major success last year, earning a Tony Award nomination for best direction for the Broadway production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,’’ written by his frequent collaborator, Christopher Durang. (“Vanya’’ won the Tony for best play.)

One of that production’s stars, David Hyde Pierce, was among the numerous actors who visited Mr. Martin in his final hours. Others included Victor Garber, who starred in a 2007 Huntington production of “Present Laughter’’ that transferred to Broadway, and Brooks Ashmanskas, who starred in the musical “She Loves Me,’’ Mr. Martin’s first mainstage production at Williamstown in 2008 (which had also been his final production at the Huntington).

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“He was an extremely talented director,’’ Durang said Thursday in a telephone interview, recalling Mr. Martin’s work on four of his plays, including an uproarious 2001 production of “Betty’s Summer Vacation’’ at the Huntington. “And he was a great laugher. I love when there’s laughter in a rehearsal. I write comedies that can be dark sometimes, but I like it when the director sets the tone and laughs a lot.’’

Mr. Martin had been scheduled to direct “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’’ again in a January 2015 production at the Huntington. Michael Maso, the company’s managing director, said the production will go forward, adding, “We will honor him with that production in some way.’’

Durang said working with Mr. Martin on “Vanya’’ and other plays was an “extremely happy experience’’ because of the director’s skill at “finding the balance of comedy and truth.’’ In addition, Mr. Martin was “very, very good with actors,” Durang noted. “So many of them became friends with him.’’

One was Kate Burton, whom Mr. Martin directed in a 2000 Huntington production of “Hedda Gabler’’ that transferred to Broadway the next year, and also in the Huntington’s “The Cherry Orchard’’ in 2007 and “The Corn is Green,’’ first at Williamstown in 2007, then at the Huntington two years later. She recently starred in the Huntington’s production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull,’’ which Mr. Martin was planning to direct. He had to withdraw several months ago, citing personal reasons.

“When you look at his body of work only at the Huntington Theatre Company, it shows you his extraordinary range as a director,’’ Burton said Thursday. “There was nothing he loved more than being in that rehearsal room: He was with his actors.”

That affinity may have stemmed from Mr. Martin having been a character actor for so long before turning to directing. Born Joel Martin Levinson, he grew up in Brooklyn, and he made his acting debut as Humpty Dumpty in a production at the Brooklyn Musical School Playhouse. His family later moved to Roosevelt, N.J. When he was around 9, his parents took him to see “Oklahoma!’’ on Broadway.

He was in the cast of a 1982 Broadway production of “Alice in Wonderland’’ that starred Burton as Alice — he played the Dormouse. One day, Burton recalled Thursday, she arrived at the theater with a pronounced hangover, having had what she called “one too many Scotches’’ the night before.

As they were warming up their voices, the young actress confided to Mr. Martin that she was worried about her performance in that day’s matinee. “Don’t worry, my darling,’’ he grandly reassured her. “Dr. Footlights will see you through.’’

He directed a total of 18 shows when he was artistic director at the Huntington, including “Dead End’’ in 2000, “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme’’ in 2002, and “Butley,’’ starring Nathan Lane, in 2003, a production that transferred to Broadway. Works such as “Mauritius,’’ “The Sisters Rosensweig,’’ “The Atheist,’’ and “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps’’ were produced at the Huntington during his tenure.

Under Mr. Martin’s stewardship, the company founded the Huntington Playwriting Fellows program, which helps develop new work from promising local playwrights. Lopez was chosen for the first class of fellows, and in 2004, he selected her play, “Sonia Flew,’’ as the first production in the Wimberly Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion, a second stage that Mr. Martin and Maso saw as a key forum for new voices.

“Nicky was extraordinary in that he went immediately with his gut instincts about people,’’ Lopez said Thursday. “He never second-guessed himself. There was nothing he loved more than giving opportunities to young people — opportunities that you just don’t get, crazy, incredibly important opportunities. To give that honor, to open the Calderwood to someone who was relatively untested, it’s just insanity. But he did that same kind of thing over and over and over with so many of us.’’

In an interview Thursday, Maso described Mr. Martin as “this enormous concentration of life.’’

He added: “He was just packed to the core with this enormous energy and this animating and smart and funny spirit. Everybody who met him felt the life pouring out of him.’’

As a director, “Nicky had the New York street smarts but he also had the caviar taste as well, in terms of stage pictures, of movement,’’ Maso said. “Nobody’s productions moved as beautifully as Nicky’s; every single moment mattered.”

In a statement, Peter DuBois, the current Huntington artistic director said: “Nick’s DNA remains in our theatres and in our institution. He will always be here, and he will always be a part of who we are.’’

Andre Bishop, producing artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, said in a statement: “Nicky Martin was a great director, a great man of the theatre, and a funny, literate, affectionate, elegant guy. He had more friends than most people have had hot suppers, and he will be missed by us all.’’

In an e-mail Thursday evening, Herold, Mr. Martin’s agent, said that there is “no knowledge of any surviving members of his immediate family.’’ There was no immediate information on memorial services.

Herold first met Mr. Martin when the latter was teaching at Bennington College in the late 1970s. They remained friends for the rest of Mr. Martin’s life.

The director “loved actors, and he loved the ritual of the theater,” Herold said in an interview Thursday. “He loved the word. And I think he had such deep feeling for everything about the theater. The theater was literally his family.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

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