Theater & dance

Supporting cast aids theater icon after brush with death

Producing artistic director of the Lyric Stage Spiro Veloudos recently lost a leg to diabetes.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Producing artistic director of the Lyric Stage Spiro Veloudos recently lost a leg to diabetes.

On a Saturday evening in December, Spiro Veloudos walked into the second-floor venue of Lyric Stage Company of Boston and immediately checked with the box office to see how many tickets had been sold for that night’s performance of “Murder for Two.’’

In other words, it was a routine Saturday for the 64-year-old Veloudos, a Falstaffian figure who has been indispensable to the growth of Boston theater.

He’s launched numerous acting careers, championed diversity in casting, and built the midsize Lyric Stage, where he’s producing artistic director, into a theater that serves as both a driving force and a linchpin on an ever-changing scene.

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Yes, a routine Saturday for Veloudos, except for one thing: That afternoon he had woken up on the floor of his Allston bedroom with no idea how he got there. He’d been feeling miserable of late, sick and in constant pain, as his longtime battle with type 2 diabetes took an increasingly punishing toll.

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Nonetheless, Veloudos pushed ahead with plans to deliver preshow remarks to the audience that night. It’s a ritual he has performed countless times, invariably with the showy flourish of the actor he once was. Veloudos sat on a chair in a hallway, awaiting his cue.

He never made it to the stage. Soon, he would be forced to make a wrenching choice — and that choice, in turn, would trigger an outpouring of theater-community support that would reveal the scope of the legacy Veloudos has built here over four decades.

While waiting to go onstage, Veloudos suddenly lost consciousness and slumped to the floor in the Lyric Stage hallway. Rushed by ambulance to Tufts Medical Center, Veloudos awoke to hear a doctor saying he was lucky to be alive. A subsequent procedure ascertained that a diabetes-related infection in Veloudos’s left leg had spread to a lethal level.

“You can have your leg amputated and live, or not have it amputated and die,’’ the doctor told Veloudos bluntly. Veloudos replied that he needed time to think about it.

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Granted, the news did not come to him as a complete shock. Previous infections had already required the amputation of several toes. His personal physician had warned Veloudos — who has a family history of diabetes and who once weighed 315 pounds — that he might end up losing his leg.

Still, it was a jolting prospect. His career was built on moving around a stage. He still directs several shows each season, and Veloudos is nimble for a big guy. When rehearsing scenes with cast members, he liked to illustrate the moves himself. (“Spirography’’ is what actor Will McGarrahan calls it.)

“Will I ever be able to work again?’’ Veloudos asked himself. He was also trying to process even wider implications. “You always think of yourself as being invulnerable,’’ he admits.

So he talked the situation over with his sister and a few friends, including Rebecca Curtiss, a former associate producer at Lyric Stage who later handled publicity at Huntington Theatre Company. He calls Curtiss his “surrogate daughter.’’ The two have been close since Veloudos hired her as a college intern nearly two decades ago.

“What I said to him was: ‘We need your brain. We need the rest of you. You are more than your leg,’ ” Curtiss recalls. “That was drawing on all our years of history, not pulling any punches, but also reflecting who he is to me personally, to my family, to our community.’’

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Veloudos agreed to undergo the surgery. On Dec. 15, his left leg was amputated below the knee. When he talks about the operation and its aftermath now, it is with a sense of renewal, as if this longtime theater professional has jettisoned a script that was going nowhere and begun to write his own new story.

Producing artistic director of the Lyric Stage Spiro Veloudos.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Producing artistic director of the Lyric Stage Spiro Veloudos.

‘You don’t know how you’ve touched people until people come out and say “You gave me my first job.” ’

“It’s the best decision I’ve made,’’ he says. “I feel great. When you get rid of the infection that’s been there for so many years, it makes such a difference.’’

Before the operation, Veloudos had been feeling so lousy that he told the Lyric’s managing director and the chair of its board of directors it was time to start planning for a successor. For a man who has no hobbies — “My life is the work,’’ he says — it was a striking admission of near-despair.

“Now I feel like Tom Brady,’’ Veloudos says, grinning, seated in a wheelchair with a Patriots Super Bowl cap on his head. “I can go another five years.’’

That’s not to say he hasn’t had some bad moments. As he hobbled down a hallway in January on his first day at the Spaulding Nursing and Therapy Center in West Roxbury, his walker suddenly came out from under him and he fell hard, ripping open the sutures.

Even now, Veloudos sometimes succumbs to what he calls his “egg-timer depression.’’ When the sadness hits, he says, “I give myself three minutes to feel depressed.’’ Then he shakes it off. He’s started adjusting to a prosthetic limb, wearing it a bit longer each day. He’s undergoing physical therapy. Recently, he’s even been greeting audiences in the Lyric Stage lobby.

His recovery has been made immeasurably easier by the way the theater community has rallied to his side. With logistics coordinated by the indefatigable Curtiss, a steady stream of theater professionals have brought books, food, magazines, crossword puzzles, and sustaining conversation.

Many of the theater folk Veloudos has encouraged along the way — actors, directors, designers, administrators — have shown him their appreciation. They have driven him to appointments. They brought him little Christmas trees to decorate his hospital room. They’ve gone clothes shopping for him.

Colleagues at Lyric Stage kept him looped in on theater activities. Cards, e-mails, and flowers have flooded in.

“It’s kind of like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ” says Veloudos. “You don’t know how you’ve touched people until people come out and say, ‘You gave me my first job.’ . . . It made me say, ‘I want to beat this thing.’ ”

In turn, others have been moved by his resiliency. “He has been a remarkable hero of his own story,’’ says Paula Plum, a star of Lyric Stage’s acclaimed recent production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” whose career was given a crucial early boost by a Veloudos-directed show in 1985. “Spiro has been part of our lives. Boston theater is his family.’’

At the moment, Veloudos is looking forward to a celebration next month of his 20th anniversary at Lyric Stage. A couple days after that, Veloudos will begin rehearsals for the final show in Lyric Stage’s season: “Camelot.’’ For sheer drama, it will be hard for that Lerner and Loewe musical to top what its director has been through lately.

“There’s still things for me to do, and people I want to work with,’’ says Veloudos. “I could sit here and look back and say ‘Oh, if I took care of myself better . . .’ I’m choosing not to do that. You can’t wallow in the past. Now I have to make sure it doesn’t happen again — and move forward again.’’

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