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Eugene Lee, Tony and Emmy Award-winning set designer, has died

Mr. Lee, in home studio in Providence in 2007.Milne,Stew Globe Photo/The Boston Globe - The Boston Gl

Honored with a trio of Tony Awards for his theater set designs, and with a half-dozen Emmys for his TV production designs on “Saturday Night Live,” Eugene Lee was among the most celebrated artists of his era, though he could be disarmingly humble about his success.

“Everything I’m doing now, I did in high school,” he told the Globe in 2007 as he reminisced about his childhood in Beloit, Wis., where his parents were community theater regulars and Mr. Lee learned how to make things work behind the scenes.

A longtime resident of Providence, where he designed sets for more than 100 Trinity Repertory Company productions, Mr. Lee was 83 when he died Tuesday, the theater company announced.


About 50 years ago, he designed the sets for Leonard Bernstein’s operetta “Candide” in New York City. His Tony-winning work for that show caught the eye of TV producer Lorne Michaels, when Michaels was first putting together “Saturday Night Live.”

“I was living on a 50-foot boat in Rhode Island,” Mr. Lee recalled in a 2017 interview with GQ magazine.

“Lorne couldn’t find a television designer that he liked, and then he saw ‘Candide’ and I guess he liked it OK,” Mr. Lee said. “So, I got a call one day on my boat while I was out rowing around the cove, and here was some guy from NBC saying that there’s this Canadian producer who is doing a comedy variety show and he’d like to meet you if you’re interested.”

The meeting in New York’s Plaza Hotel launched a professional partnership with Michaels that stretched from the first “Saturday Night Live” show in 1975 to Mr. Lee’s death, and also led to his work on other TV shows, such as “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”


“I think he’s a genius,” Michaels told the Globe in 2007. “I did from the first day I met him. He understands how to involve the audience in the show. He’s not changed much since the beginning, except that he’s gotten more successful.”

For a tribute posted on Trinity Rep’s website, Curt Columbus, the theater company’s artistic director, called Mr. Lee “a once-in-a-generation theater artist, one of the greatest minds to ever answer the question ‘What is theater?’ "

As the company’s resident set designer since 1967, Mr. Lee formerly worked with Adrian Hall, Trinity Rep’s founding artistic director. Hall died Saturday in Van, Texas, where he had grown up.

Speaking by phone from Van in 2007, Hall told that Globe that “people termed what we were doing ‘environmental theater.’ You got the audience around the event as close as you could.”

Among Mr. Lee’s innovations for other venues was insisting that part of the “Saturday Night Live” audience watch from a balcony, and that seats on the TV studio floor be gathered in clumps so cameras mounted on wheels could move among them during the live show.

Mr. Lee “was simultaneously playful and profound, childlike and rigorous, a genius who sees the world in ways that others only dream,” Columbus said in his statement.

As Mr. Lee designed for theater, film, and TV, where his work earned 18 Emmy nominations, he was constantly in demand.

“I’ve never gone out looking,” he told the Providence Journal in 2014. “I’ve never had a résumé. The phone just rings.”


Mr. Lee, who was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame, won his two other Tony Awards for “Sweeney Todd” and “Wicked” — a show so successful that it made him much more comfortable financially.

Mr. Lee's drawing of the set he designed for Wicked. Courtesy of Eugene Lee
A setting of "Wicked."Handout/Joan Marcus

His production design credits for films include Francis Ford Coppola’s “Hammett” and Louis Malle’s “Vanya on 42nd Street.”

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s regional theater or Broadway,” his wife, the artist Brooke Lee, told the Providence Journal in 2014. “He’s not thinking about the importance of the job or the money. It’s just, ‘I have this idea and can do something really wonderful.’ It’s about figuring out how to solve things.”

Born on March 9, 1939, Eugene Lee attributed his inspiration for working in the theater to his Beloit upbringing.

“My high school built a brand new building just as I was getting ready to enter my high school years,” he told Yale Alumni Magazine in 2017. “It had a fabulous theater — two theaters actually! Also, my parents were both involved in community theater. Those two things together made me interested in theater and set design.”

He also was introduced early to boats, which began a lifelong passion.

“All my boats are named after people in my family,” he told GQ.

Mr. Lee attended Carnegie Tech, which is now Carnegie Mellon University, and the Art Institute of Chicago, telling the Globe that each awarded him a bachelor’s of fine arts, even though he didn’t finish the coursework.


“I like to think they said, ‘Yah, yah, yah, he’s crazy, but nice,’ " Mr. Lee said in 1983.

He also studied in Yale University’s School of Drama stage design program, leaving before completing a degree. After Mr. Lee won his first Tony, a “Saturday Night Live” colleague convinced Yale to award Mr. Lee a master’s of fine arts, according to Yale Alumni Magazine.

“They had me to lunch and gave me a degree,” he told the publication. “A real degree, not even an honorary one!”

Mr. Lee’s first marriage, to Franne Newman Lee, a production and costume designer, ended in divorce.

He and Brooke met at a 1980 dinner party, according to the 2014 Providence Journal profile. They subsequently went sailing, and he gave her a bracelet.

“I wanted someone who knew what Payne’s gray was,” said Brooke, a painter who likes that dark, blue-gray color. “I don’t believe in soul mates, but there he was.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Lee leaves two sons, Will and Ted.

Information about a memorial gathering was not immediately available.

Mr. Lee’s “contribution to the arts and our culture, at both a local and national level, is massive, and he will forever be remembered as one of the giants of the field,” Patrick Lynch, his Trinity Rep codesigner and assistant, said for the company’s tribute.

During Mr. Lee’s career, he worked alongside well-known directors, actors, and musicians to create sets that helped them realize their artistic visions.


Throughout those decades he remained in Providence, though, commuting to New York to design sets for “Saturday Night Live.”

“I supposed any successful person who got a TV show would move to New York,” he told the Globe in 2007, but “I love Providence; it’s a silly, wonderful, city-state. You get to know people. The mayor and a congressman come to parties.”

In the GQ interview, Mr. Lee kept his advice simple for those seeking a career in theater — or any other pursuit.

“I think people should like what they do,” he said. “There it is.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at