NEW YORK — Arthur Storch — an exacting director who found success on Broadway and became a force in regional theater, once asking Eugene Ionesco to rewrite a play and goading a young Aaron Sorkin to work harder — died March 5 in Manhattan. He was 87. His death was confirmed by his son Max.
Mr. Storch directed both on and off Broadway for a dozen years and later created a regional theater company, Syracuse Stage, considered one of the most successful in the country.
His Broadway credits included ‘‘The Owl and the Pussycat,’’ with Alan Alda and Diana Sands (1964); ‘‘The Impossible Years,’’ with Alan King (1965); and ‘‘Tribute,’’ with Jack Lemmon (1978). He also directed experimental off-Broadway works featuring Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, and Al Pacino, who like him were alumni of the Actors Studio.
In 1974, in need of a break after a series of ambitious flops, Mr. Storch accepted a job with a dual role: leader of the undergraduate theater program at Syracuse University and artistic director of the faltering stage company affiliated with it.
He thought he would ‘‘do it for a year and see what happens,’’ he said in an interview long afterward. Instead, he stayed for 18 years.
Mr. Storch renamed and in effect reinvented the company. By the time he left he had built a professional theater company known for sold-out subscriptions and excellent productions of plays by Shakespeare and Beckett, as well as new playwrights.
He had also attracted a new crop of theater majors to the affiliated university program, including one self-described underachiever named Aaron Sorkin. “Arthur’s reputation as a director, and as a disciple of Lee Strasberg, was a big reason why a lot of us went to SU,’’ said Sorkin, a 1983 Syracuse graduate whose writing credits include the movies ‘‘A Few Good Men’’ and ‘‘The Social Network’’ and the television series ‘‘The West Wing,’’ in an e-mail Friday.
Sorkin said Mr. Storch was a somewhat forbidding figure on campus. “As a freshman you didn’t speak to him, and it was unlikely he’d know your name,’’ he wrote. ‘‘But he’d generally zero in on two seniors who he felt were worth his time, and I was one of those seniors. ‘You have the capacity to be so much better than you are,’ he started saying to me in September of my senior year. He was still saying it in May.’’ Mr. Storch was famous for goading, and not just college seniors.
Ionesco was 59 and considered one of the foremost playwrights of his time when Mr. Storch suggested that he rewrite the second act of his relatively new three-act play, ‘‘Hunger and Thirst.’’
‘‘I had doubts about the second act that I read, and I told Ionesco that when I saw him in Paris,’’ Mr. Storch recalled in an interview with The New York Times in 1969, while directing the play’s American premiere at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Massachusetts. ‘‘He got up, went into another room, and came back with a script. ‘How do you like this second act?’ he asked. I did.’’
Arthur Storch was born in Brooklyn. He graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School and enlisted in the US Army in the early days of World War II, fudging his age to get in at 17, his son said. Mr. Storch received a bachelor’s degree from the New School for Social Research in 1949. He then studied drama at the Actors Studio.
As an actor Mr. Storch was probably best known for his role as the outmatched psychiatrist in ‘‘The Exorcist’’ (1973).
After leaving Syracuse he was artistic director at the Berkshire Theater Festival from 1994 to 1997. In recent years he taught at the New School.
Besides his son Max, he leaves two other children, Bess and Alexander. He was married and divorced five times.
When advising his students at Syracuse, Mr. Storch was brutally honest about the prospects for happiness in the theater, which he saw as a place of arduous work, fierce competition, and constant pressure to earn profits for investors. ‘‘If there is anything else that you can do, you should do it,’’ he once said.
The advice he repeated to Sorkin like a refrain during his senior year — ‘‘You have the capacity to be so much better than you are’’ — was only slightly more cheering.
‘‘On the last day of classes he said it again,’’ Sorkin wrote, ‘‘and I said, ‘How?’ and he answered, ‘Dare to fail.’ ’’
He added, ‘‘I’ve been coming through on his admonition ever since.’’