Al Pacino, one of countless actors whose careers were nurtured by the pioneering Boston theater director David Wheeler, once described him this way to the Globe: “He’s with you like no one I ever worked with - he’s with you in the play; he’s with you in the part. He’s in the struggle with you. He’s always there, through everything.’’
Waves of sadness coursed yesterday through theater circles in Boston and beyond, where Mr. Wheeler - who died of respiratory and heart failure Wednesday at 86 - was not just well-respected but beloved by many. The director of nearly 200 plays, he had a generosity of spirit, a mildness of manner, a vision of theater as a vitally collaborative endeavor, and a passion for championing provocative new playwrights, said those who knew him.
“David is one of the founding fathers of postwar Boston and American theater,’’ Robert Brustein, founder of the American Repertory Theater and Yale Repertory Theatre, said.
Mr. Wheeler was the founding artistic director of the Theatre Company of Boston from 1963 to 1975. In that role, he helped put Boston on the map, said Jon Voight, who came to Boston as a young actor to perform in a Harold Pinter play directed by Mr. Wheeler. “He worked with the very best of our generation. He was always discovering talent,’’ Voight said last night. “It was a real artistic center,’’ he added. “His enthusiasm for the theater was inspiring.’’
Perhaps no actor was more inspired than Pacino. “David Wheeler has been one of the lights of my life,’’ Pacino told the Globe last night in a statement. “He has been there for me throughout and seen me go from a penniless actor who he supported with real generosity, heart, and love under his tutelage, inspiration, and guidance. . . . His love of course of playwrights, actors, and the theater itself was insurmountable. There should be a statue of him in remembrance.’’
The talk yesterday centered not only on the boldface names Mr. Wheeler once worked with - along with Pacino and Voight, the roster of young actors included Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Blythe Danner, Robert Duvall, Stockard Channing, and James Woods - but also on how he broke new ground with the Theatre Company of Boston.
He introduced an edgier aesthetic, staging works by the likes of Pinter, Sam Shepard, Edward Albee, Bertolt Brecht, and David Rabe. In the process, he helped enlarge Boston’s theatrical identity beyond that of simply a tryout town for Broadway-bound productions or a home for cozy community theater fare.
“He inaugurated an idea that has been growing and growing since the Theatre Company of Boston,’’ said Paula Plum, a Boston actress and director who studied under Mr. Wheeler at Boston University in the early 1970s. “He was the author of this idea of creating theater in Boston and producing it in Boston and bringing it to Boston audiences.’’
Shawn LaCount, the 35-year-old artistic director of Company One, where Mr. Wheeler directed his final production, Suzan-Lori Parks’ “The Book of Grace,’’ last spring, said bluntly: “He was Boston theater. I just can’t emphasize enough the power of that. He was a founder of what he have today, and he didn’t go anywhere else, and that was his choice.’’
LaCount said that the 1998 founding of Company One, one of the most cutting-edge theaters in Boston, was “directly inspired by David’s work.’’ In recent years, LaCount said, he and Mr. Wheeler “talked all the time about plays we were looking to collaborate on, and they were always new plays.’’
Mr. Wheeler taught theater at several area universities, including Harvard University; one of his students there was Matt Damon, who credited Mr. Wheeler with helping him improve as an actor. It was in Mr. Wheeler’s acting class that Damon and Ben Affleck performed some scenes from a script they were working on; it would eventually become “Good Will Hunting.’’ (Affleck’s father, Timothy Affleck, acted with the Theatre Company of Boston.)
Mr. Wheeler was also always willing to help an actor through a creative logjam, often with instructions that were notable for their simplicity and clarity. Plum recalled a time she was rehearsing a scene in Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,’’ and she got hung up on a scene where she felt awkward holding a glass.
“David came up to me and said: ‘The actor has to always do what’s truthful. You don’t do it for the sake of not being awkward. You do what’s true. You work for the truth of the moment.’ ’’
In 1972, Mr. Wheeler directed Pacino in Rabe’s “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel’’ and five years later directed the play on Broadway, again starring Pacino, who won a Tony Award.
‘He worked with the very best of our generation. . . . His enthusiasm for the theater was inspiring.’
“The best thing about David was his open, generous soul,’’ Rabe said yesterday. “He was open to everybody’s ideas. He directed almost without directing, in a way. He let people find their way, and molded it when he had to.’’
Mr. Wheeler was a resident director at the ART in the 1980s and 1990s, and an associate artist until 2009, according to ART spokeswoman Kati Mitchell. He directed more than 20 productions at the ART, including “No Man’s Land’’ in 2007, for which he won an Elliot Norton Award from the Boston Theater Critics Association.
In a statement, ART artistic director Diane Paulus called Mr. Wheeler “a wonderful and visionary director who helped shape many seasons at the American Repertory Theater and in Boston’s theater community.’’
“One of the amazing things about him was that, if you watched him in rehearsal, you almost wouldn’t see him direct,’’ said Gideon Lester, former acting artistic director at the ART. “He directed by telling stories - he had great stories about the actors he had worked with - and he would use those stories to tease a kind of psychological richness out of the actors’ performances.’’
Brustein said that Mr. Wheeler “just had a magical touch with actors’’ and ability to fix problems. I’ve never understood what his mystery was. I used to sit in rehearsal, and he would say ‘Jeremy, don’t sit in the stage-left chair, sit in the stage-right chair. And it fixed it!’’
Mr. Wheeler, who lived in Weston, was a veteran of World War II, where he served in the US Army’s 331st Infantry Regiment. In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Bronia Wheeler, a former actress; his sister, Janet Wheeler Walter of New Jersey; and his sister-in-law, Joyce Sielewicz.
Funeral services will be held Monday at 2 p.m. in St. John the Evangelist Church, Wellesley Hills. Visiting hours will be Sunday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Henry J. Burke & Sons Funeral Home, Wellesley Hills. Interment will be private.
“An era of Boston theater has ended,’’ said Spiro Veloudos, producing artistic director of the Lyric Stage Company. “David was a giant in Boston theater for so long, whether it was Theatre Company of Boston or ART or, in later years, some of the smaller companies. His legacy is that every time you turn around, you bump into somebody who took a class with him or worked with him or who he was a mentor of.’’Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.